When Sultan Qabus came to power in 1970, there were only three schools in Oman. Today, there are 270.000 children in school and 1.140 students attend the university which was inaugurated in 1986. Expansion of education is regarded as one of the most important achievements of the modernisation programme launched under Qabus, but it is also creating its own problems.
Every year, nearly 4.000 students leave secondary schools and the first batch of university graduates will come onto the employment market this year. The difficulty is absorbing all of them into an an economy where growth is sluggish because of the austerity measures forcedd on the government by stagnant oil revenues. (Oil income was just under $3bn in 1987 and is estimated at little more last year).
“The problem of the new generation is our greatest challenge”, said an Omani official closely associated with the government’s economomic and social policies. “Until now we have provided all graduates with a job, but the government -- which is by far the largest single employer -- just doen’t have the financial resources to hire more people”.
“Omanisation” has been a much-used slogan for several years, but now the government realises it must act quickly if it is to avoid trouble in the future. A special committee chaired by Seyed Fahd bin Mahmoud, the deputy premier for legal affairs, has been set up to tackle the problem with representatives from the ministries of education, finance and the civil service.
One big obstacle is that almost all Omani graduates want to work for the government. Salaries are generally higher than in the private sector, working hours are shorter and job security is greater. But the public sector is already approaching saturation with 72.000 employees, some 11.000 of them working for the Royal Diwan. “This is a large figure for a total population of about one and a half million”, says Ahmed Makki, the civil service minister. “From now on the only possibility for an Omani is to take over from one of the 23.000 foreigners in the civil service”.
Over the past two years, the government has been training Omanis who want to join the civil service, paying them a salary while they sit next to an expatriate employee and learn the job. As soon as the expatriate’s contract is up, the Omani national takes over.
But most of the foreigners have technical positions, and it takes time to train technicians and specialists. Meanwhile, the government is paying out two salaries for one job. The two ministries who employ by far the largest number of foreigners are education and health. More than 8.000 Egyptians, over 1.000 Sudanese and a little less than 1.000 Jordanians are teaching in Oman. The Health Minuistry employs an estimated 2.000 Indians, 1.300 Filipinos and 500 Pakistanis. Ahmed Makki is working on a plan for the Omanisation of the two ministries, but no deadline has been set because of the difficulty of training large numbers of teachers and nurses.
To help them find a job, the government has set up a one-year crash programme to train graduates in subjects such as litterature and psychology to become teachers in secondary schools. But the government is determined that students who take courses which do not fit them for for employment must face the consequences. “We need technicians and scientists”, says Ahmed Makki. “Oman cannot afford the luxury of letting people study useless subjects”. More than half the students at the university are in courses like litterature and Islamic studies, but the government is already carefully selecting which students it is sending abroad for further education.
The private sector, which employs about a quarter of a million foreigners, has potentially a much larger capacity to absorb Omani nationals. This will be a long and costly process, however, and the government does not want to pursue it over-vigorously and thereby risk frightening away foreign investors.
Omanis are also understandably reluctant to accept the lower salaries paid to Indians and Pakistanis. Ahmed Makki is studying a proposal whereby such salaries could be increased by adding on the cost of paying for immigrants’ housing, airline tickets and medical treatment. Businessmen have also told the government that it would be easier to attract Omanis if government pay rates were lowered (as has happened for new recruits in the UAE). So far, the authorities have shied away from this potentially provocative solution.
Another obstacle is persuading Omanis to take relatively low-grade jobs. The civil service minister is convinced that economic necessity will change people’s minds. “In the past, when I offered a job for a typist, only primary or preparatory school graduates showed up. But now secondary school graduates are applying, because they haven’t got a choice”. He draws a comparison with the past. “What forced Omanis to go abroad in search of work during the time of Sultan Qabus’ father? Necessity! And necessity will also force Omanis to take jobs here that maybe they don’t like”.
Ahmed Makki does not think this will create political problems. “Our young people have not yet reached that level of dissatisfaction. There is a lot of work in Oman, and the younger generation cannot claim that we aren’t doing anything for them. They are on the top of the agenda”. He added that the government was thinking of producing a five-year plan for human resources. “It could mean we have to review our whole system of education”.
(The Middle East magazine, June 1989)
Droits de Reproduction strictement réservés © Chris Kutschera 2002
Abu Dhabi, UEA