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Oman au fil du temps. Une nation de la Nahda à l'Oman Vision 2040

Education, Youth and Employment in Oman

Marion Breteau et Ahmed al-Suleimani

Résumés

Visant à soutenir l’intégration des jeunes dans le marché du travail, Y est l’une des premières compagnies créées dans un but de participation des jeunes à la vie sociale en Oman. A travers la description de son public, de ses programmes pédagogiques et des relations entre les différents secteurs du travail en contexte omanais, cet article analyse les tensions et enjeux contemporains qui résident dans le fait de « devenir adulte » en Oman.

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Introduction

  • 1 The organization and respondents’ names have been anonymized to respect their identity.
  • 2 Valeri, 2013; Worrall, 2020.
  • 3 Vision Document [Draft], Oman Vision 2040, 11 September 2019.

1Y1 is a private company created by a group of young graduates who wanted to offer more visibility and support to youth. Aiming at developing leadership skills, financial literacy, or self-promotion (at-taswîq aḏ-ḏâtî), its main goals is to help youth to enter the job market and promote their know-how. Echoing the successive governmental plans to modernize the country2, Y is a significant example of an initiative that emerged during the last decades, especially in regard to Oman Vision 2040 which has put youth development at the core of its ongoing objectives3. Unveiled in 2018, this five-year national plan consists in drawing courses of action to ensure the Sultanate’s future, which Y is one but of many other results.

  • 4 Valeri, 2011.
  • 5 Ibid.
  • 6 Louër, 2015.
  • 7 “How is Oman Reacting to Low Oil Prices?”, The World Bank, online. URL: https://www.worldbank.org/e (...)
  • 8 Calabrese, 2018.

2The period during which Y was implemented corresponds to what can be called the Omani spring that took place in 2011 and 20124. The protests it refers to concerned, among others, unemployment5, due to the 2003-2012 job nationalization reforms as these triggered an “increase of labor cost and a correlated decrease in their profits”6. In 2012, the Omani government answered these demands by creating 50,000 new jobs in the public sector, raising the minimum wage for private-sector employees, launching a new unemployment benefit, and easing university enrolments and monthly stipends7. Nevertheless, in 2016, the job market got affected again, most probably due to the decrease of oil rent8, that Oman Vision 2040 aims at addressing by reinforcing Omani economy.

  • 9 Yamani, 2012, p. 187.
  • 10 Ibid., p. 114.
  • 11 Valeri, 2015.

3Y company is also a reflect of youth dynamism in Oman. Sociologists and anthropologists have discussed how youth in the Middle East tend to be described with a certain form of passivity, as if caught by the impossibility to participate in social life, and suffering from stagnation rather than actively taking part in it or countering it9. Young adults in the Arab world largely depend economically on their families, and even if they would come from privileged milieus, their independence rests on the capacity to marry; a step that can be facilitated by integrating into the job market. Youth in this context is an “ambivalent, liminal social status produc[ing] anxieties”10 that the extension of education tends to reinforce. However, passivity is far from being the only salient aspect that defines this age class. The Arab springs alone are a significant example, as these have been organized by a young part of the population11. On the other hand, these movements have initiated other forms of participation that showed youth’s capacity to organize and to raise their voices, which is the case of the company we describe in this article.

  • 12 Program report.
  • 13 Sebiane et al., 2022.

4Celebrating its 10th anniversary in 202012, Y is made of Omani men and women aged between 18 and 35 who all live or study in Muscat. As an Arabic-language company, and even though most of its members and participants are fluent in English, this language remains their second language, and the promotion of the company concentrates exclusively on Arabic, an aspect thought to reach a local population of youth in a society with a 39% foreign population13. More than a simple or short-term initiative to encourage youths in their professional future, it is regarded by many members as a place to meet new people and to break their daily routine. After some successes and adaptation to its audience, the company diversified its activities. Its current involvement in Oman Vision 2040 projects led the founders to consider their activities on a larger, national scale.

  • 14 Khalaf & Saad Khalaf, 2012; Menoret, 2014.

5This article traces the history of the company, taken as a case study to examine the dynamics that define the role of youth in the Omani society at large. The first part focuses on the different aspects of employment in Oman through the creation of this company. Discussing studies on youth in the Middle East14, the second part interrogates the attributes given to this generation when observed in Oman, such as the tension between idleness, defeatism, waithood, and desire for social acknowledgment, by examining Y as a place by which many young Omanis enter adulthood. The last part addresses the openness of Y to larger projects through its implementation all over the country, and its relations with structures of the same kind. These challenges redirect Y’s initiatives, either to adapt to local demands or to redefine the identity of the company both in terms of economic sustainability and pedagogic issues, especially since the implementation of Oman Vision 2040 in 2018.

  • 15 What Johannes Fabian (1983) invites to in his fierce criticism of the allochronic effects induced b (...)
  • 16 Miran, 2010; Clifford, 1983.
  • 17 Adams et al., 2017.
  • 18 Jackson & Mazzei, 2008, p. 302.

6The methodology of this study is inspired by works in participative anthropology15. Whereas anthropological investigation is more often conducted alone, and the claim for scientificity is associated with “not belonging” to the groups studied16, our work is an attempt at common reflection between a researcher’s lens, and what would be considered as the voice of an informant. The study relies on different phases of data collection. Marion Breteau conducted ethnographic fieldwork between 2013 and 2017, during which she attended educational programs, public presentations, workshops and Y’s team meetings. She also followed five members’ daily life outside of their activities within the company to grasp the links between work issues, daily responsibilities, family relationships and adult empowerment in youth’s quotidian lives. The contribution of Ahmed al-Suleimani is based on his personal experience in Y as a trainer for nine years, which finds echoes in what can be understood by autoethnography. This methodological approach asks to reconsider personal relationships to lean them towards more accurate analysis17, and “to write with [one’s] experiences as data”18. In fact, A. al-Suleimani had to take hold of his experience and relations afterward as they were not aimed at being analyzed scientifically. This posture was therefore formalized by this subsequent writing exercise, making it more of an “a posteriori self-analysis”, which was also enabled by the interviews M. Breteau conducted with him as an interviewee. To capture the different levels of his implication, we have chosen to refer to A. al-Suleimani in the third person when implying his personal account to emphasize his position as a respondent, and by using the first-person plural to reflect his involvement in the research.

7The health restrictions put in place in 2020 prevented us from carrying out our initial project, which would have consisted of attending the activities together. Most of them were canceled or led online, while national borders remained closed for the duration of our research. In order to overcome this situation and to find a methodological equal footing, we designed semi-directive interview guides that we conducted with members of Y separately, which have been enriched by informal discussions and an online questionnaire answered by 42 respondents, all current or former members of Y.

I. Youth Employment in Oman

1. The Omanization policies

  • 19 Higher Education Admission Statistics, 2020/2021, Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Innova (...)
  • 20 Beaugrand, 2004, p. 2.
  • 21 Ibid., p. 26.

8Once they finish their secondary education, most youths enroll at the university or private colleges in Muscat. Prospective students formulate three wishes on the college they want to study in. Public Sultan Qaboos University (SQU) is the most recurrent choice, as it is free and considered to provide the highest quality of education. However, in 2021 only, 21,2% of those who selected SQU as their first choice, got accepted19. One of the reasons rests on the criteria for acceptance, including the results of the baccalaureate, which is obtained if the result is of a minimum of 90 points out of 10020. Overall, 68,7% students get accepted at the university that corresponds to their first choice, but not necessarily in the major elected, all universities of the country comprised21.

  • 22 ash-shabâb w al-‘amal [Youth and work], National Center for Statistics and Information, Oman, 2018, (...)
  • 23 Belwal et al., 2005.
  • 24 De Bel-Air, 2018.

9Being refused at SQU leads those who would not be accepted to integrate private colleges if they can afford it, to work, or rather to look for a job. In 2016, the category of youth (18-29 years old) represented 27,6% of the total population of the Sultanate and accounted for approximately 9% of the total workforce22. The main reason for that situation is the inadequacy between suitable education in regard to the current job market23. National surveys explain this gap by the quality of education and the opportunities for on-job training, while the job market is regarded as stagnating. Other conditions, such as the dominating foreign workforce, tend to reinforce the inaccessibility to the job market24. In addition, young adults focus more on finding a job as their search for economic independence from their family increases, which is what Ahmed and Majed’s stories illustrate.

10Ahmed – the co-author – was 32 years old and a father of one at the time of the survey. For him, key to success in the job market depends on the sector, be it public or private. As a language instructor in governmental institutions, he has a lot of free time in the afternoon since he finishes work at 2 pm. He dedicates his afternoons to working for private companies, including Y. For him, the public sector ensures his job security, a paid salary despite any potential economic issues, and free time that can be devoted elsewhere. Indeed, working in the public sector ensures some safety: retirement plans are said to be advantageous, working hours are few, and holidays match the national and religious calendars. These conditions allow engaging in other activities or jobs, or simply having free time for personal life. Nevertheless, the public sector prevents from getting fast promotions or salary increases. They are based on the level of education or the type of job since these are not much evolutive, as this is the case for the administration field. In this context, for Ahmed, working in the private sector during his free time enables him to be more independent and to improve his professional skills. In fact, private sectors include more training that helps to get professional maturity, hence promotions and financial independence. Ahmed can design projects of his own, whilst developing his skills and providing extra money to his family. Salaries in the private sector are seen as more advantageous: they do not rely on diplomas, a peculiarity that is beneficial for those who would not have high levels of education. But it implies long working days, which also explains the higher amount of salaries.

  • 25 The notion of “Interior” refers here to the regions outside Muscat city.
  • 26 Interview, online, August 18, 2020.
  • 27  Interview found on a Saudi online forum – June 2020.

11Working in the private sector also means a different working atmosphere. According to our informants, this is due to the foreign workforce that dominates this field numerically. The service sector, and non-specialized jobs, count a majority of foreign workers, to the extent that a career in this field is rarely considered by Omani nationals. This phenomenon is also due to social representations that associate professional specialization and expertise with national belongings. Originated from a conservative family in the Interior25, Majed, 26 years old, completed a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from a university in the United States thanks to a scholarship granted by the Omani government. During his stay, he applied for a job in a coffee shop as a waiter to make additional income. Doing so was not that obvious to him, especially in comparison with his American classmates who generally had part-time jobs to finance their education. On the contrary, Majed explained this was devaluing to him, as he considered it “normally for foreigners” and “low-class”26 people. As he explained in a Twitter publication, it is rather the desire for new experience that motivated him. This story was so unprecedented that his tweet went viral, and Majed got interviewed by magazines and radio channels in Oman and in other Gulf countries. On these occasions, he would explain that the very fact of working as a waiter helped him to qualify social disparities within the Omani job market and society more largely27. Working as a waiter was not conceivable to him, not only because of the low salary but also because of the status this kind of position meant to him.

  • 28 Das & Gokhale, 2010.
  • 29 Ibid.
  • 30 Ibid.

12Youth’s perception of work, its relation to nationality and the difference between the private and the public sector, is also explained by the governmental measures to promote national workforce also known as the Omanization program. In a similar fashion to other Gulf countries, this program aims at balancing the number of nationals to progressively ensure local job market independence after the recruitment of foreigners during the first exploitations of oil resources in the 1970s28. Implemented in 1988 in successive five-years plans until 200629, the Omanization rationale can be summed up as follows: first, “positions currently held by expatriate workers could be easily occupied by Omani nationals”; second, “replacing expatriates with Omani workers also would help reduce public spending on subsidized services (electricity, water, health) consumed by expatriates”; third, “the substitution of expatriate workers by Omanis also would help to reduce Oman’s balance of payments deficit because of workers’ remittances […]”; fourth, “the substitution of expatriates by Omanis could well lead to an increase in domestic spending through the multiplier effect, and thus contribute to faster GDP growth […]”30.

  • 31 These conditions vary according to the company or employer’s statuses. See Ministerial Decree No. 5 (...)
  • 32 Khalaf, 2006, p. 256.
  • 33 The 2013 decree has been modified in 2021. The latest version states that working in the private se (...)

13The Omanization program differs in its implementation according to the field of activity (private or public), and on the company’s size. In the private sector, Small and Medium Enterprises (SME) must be comprised of 20% of Omani employees when hired on a full-time contract, and 10% when on a part-time31. These restrictions explain why Ahmed had to take several jobs. First, living in Muscat, in comparison to his region of origin, adds in financial costs, be it to pay the rent of his apartment, or for the activities he would not have otherwise, such as going to coffee shops or restaurants, in a social urban environment centered towards consumption32. Second, if working in the public sector as he does offers him free time for other projects, it is because he is not allowed to work more than 20 hours a week in it. Indeed, this other restriction, which was first thought during the elaboration of the Omanization program33, is a condition that Omanis must follow when working in both sectors at the same time. Part-time contracts hence require adjusting one’s schedule: Ahmed or Majed’ relations to the work field illustrate a tendency to develop flexibility, but also an increasing awareness of national work policies. However, especially when they have just left high school or university, not all youths succeed in mastering their understanding. As a result, they enter the job market by making up their own opportunities, which is what Y’s founders did by creating their company.

2. The First Steps

  • 34 Interview, online, June 15, 2020.

14Y’s philosophy is deeply rooted in the founders’ personal trajectories as young adults. Abeer is the one from whom the idea came, and her story deeply embodies the motives of the organization. Today aged 35 years old and a mother of one, she was first employed in an oil company. Even though her salary was fairly generous, she soon felt a lack of interest in her job and decided to leave it to become involved in something “useful”34. Interested in participating in youth’s life back when she was a student, she attended Arab youth forums in neighboring countries. With the support of two other friends, she then organized a similar conference in 2009 in Oman before opening the company.

  • 35 Ibid.
  • 36 Ibid.
  • 37 Ibid.

15Abeer’s regret about the job market is related to the use of informal connection, that is, the advantages given by one’s network and relationships35. When she resigned from her job and started to look for a new one, her profile did not attract the employers’ attention because of her limited experience and young age. Originated from a middle-class family, her capacity to use her informal connections was difficult for her, while her extravert personality made her exclude the use of such a practice. In that sense, creating Y became a way to improve her career opportunities by becoming her “own boss”36. This is how Abeer designed Y’s goals and implemented effective solutions for its audience. Her approach has been, as she puts it, to “focus on results and quality more than quantity and showcase”37. Making transparency towards the founders and the government a priority, Abeer explained she often employed a personal register to address the issues targeted by Y when introducing it to institutional interlocutors. During professional meetings with the company’s sponsors, or even during public appearances on the television, she often talks about her own experience in the work field as a way of convincing her interlocutors. Resorting to personal anecdotes such as the struggles she encountered to find a job, and using an affective register, hence helped her not to be reproached of speaking “for” others since her word applies to herself only.

  • 38 Belwal et al., 2015, p. 925.
  • 39 Ibid., p. 930.
  • 40 Scanlan & Flexman, 1980; Frank, 2007.

16Abeer was rapidly joined by six other members. All of them had similar trajectories when starting to enter the job market. Even though they found a consensus on the procedure to implement the company, few of them studied entrepreneurship. Considered “informal training interventions”38 in many countries of the Middle East, entrepreneurship is secondary in the region’s educational priorities. In Oman, higher education focuses much on “vocational education institutions and technology colleges”39, while institutions leading to entrepreneur careers are mostly private, which reduces their accessibility, economically speaking40. Illustrative of the educational environment in Oman, the creation of Y then relied on basic know-how acquired during each one’s studies, going from library science, education, communication to trade. Altogether, each founder’s skills completed the other. Deeply rooted in their own experiences, this aspect made them aware of the issues they wanted to address with this project as they were the first concerned.

  • 41 Interview, online, June 15, 2020.

17Newspaper articles and other media rarely specify Y’s exact status, and it is often times referred to as an “institution”. For the founders, the blurring of the nature of the company is tied to the issues encountered during its creation, and the challenges faced in considering alternatives to the use to informal connections. Indeed, addressing this issue in explicit terms could be taken as criticism of the Omani society as a whole, which is not what the company intends to do. Therefore, Abeer’s concern was to ensure “honesty” and “transparency” towards Y’s funders and the government to implement the company41. The team’s aim consisted in not hiding any other target the structure could tend to, such going against the interest of the country, or misusing the data and money that could be collected to fund it.

  • 42 Ibid.

18At the beginning, the team thought of the format that could be the most beneficial between a Non-Governmental Organization and a public one. The latter would have required conditions to be followed, such as counting a minimum of 40 members, and a certain budget that the team did not attain at that time yet, but also limiting the activities to specific themes42. It first started in the form of a conference. During the opening speech of the forum, the founders announced the establishment of Y as an independent company for conference organization. The marketing strategy focused on social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to reach young audiences. The activities attracted media such as television and radio programs, which allowed the team to sign sponsorship deals with local radio stations to finance their first programs.

  • 43 Interview, online, June 14, 2020.
  • 44 Program report.

19Indeed, Y’s economic resources came from different private and public organizations. The company then tried to start a new path by designing programs specifically for organizations, which ensured wider financial support. For one of the members in charge of the finances, the resources should derive from sources others than sponsors because of the dependence this induces43. One of the alternatives was to offer services based on the company’s needs, such as organizing conferences or offering consultancy. Progressively, the money collected helped the team to organize gatherings without depending on sponsors. Nevertheless, some oil companies’ sponsorship remains necessary for the company’s sustainability44. As these generally accompany their financial support with expectations from the programs they fund, Y needs to adhere to these conditions, while sponsorship also helps to ensure places for offering internships to the participants in the sponsors’ companies.

II. A Certain Vision of Youth

  • 45 Informal discussion, 2021.

20From its organization to the half-professional, half-familiar atmosphere in the offices or during the workshops, Y’s philosophy rests on a very contemporary vision of youth. The founders and core members were born between the late 1980s and 1990s. Most of them are now married and parents, which are signs of their entry into adulthood by their community. Their understandings of youth differ from the new recruits, which reverberates in the evolution of the company. The eldest, conscious of the struggles that punctuated the job market in the 2010s, are mostly employees of the company. Aged primarily between 18 and 25, the youngest members are participants, trainees, or volunteers. Their perception of work is regarded by the elder in a passive way. The way each generation regards the other, is also influenced by their parents: as Ahmed often comments, there is a “mismatch between the parents’ perception of ‘good job’ and what they really want”45.

21Y’s role is to restore young people’s confidence in their professional potential by giving back interest in education. Both age categories are distinguished by their perceptions of work, but they also stand together in common aspects. One of the most striking elements is the informal atmosphere of the company, which many of the participants and members consider as the “glue that sticks” them to their objectives, collectively or individually. Ultimately, informality goes along with the diversity of the people who take part to Y. In the image of this young generation, diversity (in terms of social background or gender, among other factors) is often mentioned as one of the structure’s strengths. Frequenting it allows qualifying diversity’s issues, contrary to the parents whose belongings have often been a determining condition for their access to work.

1. The School-to-Work Transition: A Generational Question

  • 46 Moghadam, 2005.
  • 47 Carter Hallwards & Bekdash Muellers, 2019, p. 7.

22The generational gap between the two categories of age who are associated with the company can be explained by Valentine Moghadam’s typology of generations in the Gulf.46 Relying on economic understandings of the term, she distinguishes three different groups. The first one, called the “oil boom generation”, can refer to the parents of Y’s founders. They were between 20 and 30 during the first transformations of the country and the rise of the rentier state in the 1970s. Most of this generation did not have the opportunity to pursue their studies, since the first university opened its doors in 1986, while those who were more economically advantaged studied abroad. The second generation is defined as that of “liberalization”. It corresponds to Y’s founders, who could benefit from the oil rent and the development of Omani educational structures. The last one, rather referring to the participants of the company, is the “innovation generation”, defined as the one that evolved during the “rise of social media and the shifting political economy of Oman”47.

  • 48 Wyn, 2012, p. 64.
  • 49 Carter Hallwards & Bekdash Muellers, 2019, p. 7.
  • 50 Wyn, 2012, p. 61.

23In either case, what distinguishes each category is the perception associated with the school-to-work transition48. The third generation refers to individuals under the age of 3549. In fact, those of this age, or, say, between 25 and 35, are in between the liberalization and the innovation generations. They are the first generation that benefited from the current educational system. Importance to their education was given in relation to economic stability for access to adulthood and self-accomplishment. This also means rapid access to work and shorter study times than the youngest. Therefore, “young people [are positioned] as an economic resource and tool for the purpose of ensuring [the country’s] economic competitiveness”50. Youth has progressively been associated with being a student, and education as security for a job in the future. However, one can perceive slight differences with those who are under 25. Indeed, the youngest spent more time at university than their older brothers and sisters because master’s and doctorate programs opened recently, but also because the economic crisis implicitly directed them to pursue their studies rather than looking for a job they would not find.

  • 51 Al-Saqri, 2019.
  • 52 Beaugrand, 2004, p. 1; Honvault & al-Rashoud, 2019.
  • 53 Eickelman, 2002, p. 233.

24The way these two generations interact with one another in the company, enables us to consider Y’s community as a class of age per se. This is visible in the way education is addressed by the company and how the different programs take job issues “seriously”. As repeated during the training or in the advertisements, education is one of its primary goals. This reflects the changes and social programs led by the Omani government since the 1980s51. As in the other Gulf countries, this period is marked by a large investment of the oil rent in school buildings, free access to national universities and teachers’ recruitment52, and the integration of women in the school curricula53. As a result of modern education, Y counts persons trained to become teachers, either through independent training, or in university departments of education. However, the trainers tend to regard the young participants as unaware of the importance of finding a job, while the trainers and organizers put this at the core of self-independence, hence adulthood. In this context, most programs are dedicated to developing work awareness, by a specific approach which mainly consists in informal discussions. A member would introduce himself or herself and expand on how they addressed work issues in their career paths; other times, external guests with particularly successful trajectories are invited. Other workshops focus on daily budget management or on the development of SMEs and start-ups.

  • 54 Interview, online, August 16, 2020.

25Omani youth and the members of Y do perceive the country’s education system as defective. For Omania, a 28-year-old employee at Y, it is even inadequate with job opportunities. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering, Omania spent two years looking for a job. During this time, she sent her CVs, visited companies to offer her services, and participated not less than four job interviews a week, but all were unsuccessful. The reasons given for her rejection were principally her lack of experience as she had just graduated. After following one of the flagship programs, she realized that the problem was not only her lack of professional experience or the scarcity of job opportunity in her field. What she learned during the training was how to adapt one’s skills rather than being satisfied by her specialization. As she explained, emphasis was put on her “ability to change” and how she could “develop” her own skills54.

26Based on several steps of selection, training, and a 3-months internship, one of the main programs aims to help participants to find a job contract within its term. This is how Omania found an internship at the Post as a communication manager, which helped her to discover skills she did not develop at university. She finally joined Y as a project manager, first as a trainee, then as a part-time employee, and finally on a full-time basis. In her job, she is asked to support others and to design volunteering projects, a domain she had not suspected she would have liked, nor be able to do. Rather than supporting jobseekers in their own field, through CV writing workshops or job interview training, a program such as the one she followed promotes adaptability to prevent unemployment for the trainers, which Omania is convinced of. The way workshops are led indeed shapes a certain understanding of work and education, which revolves around adaptability to fill the gap between two periods of life, youth, and adulthood.

2. Informality as a Key to Success

27One of the ambitions of Y has been to build an atmosphere in-between family and work. These two spheres and the fact of positioning oneself in between is significant to the definition and characteristics of this generation. Indeed, young Omanis grew up in very close-knit family environments, and their circles of friends are often related to them. Moreover, young adults rarely leave the nest before marrying. This functioning leads them to an ambivalent status in the building of their independence, since staying at the family’s offers the possibility to save money to get married.

28In this context, the university is the first place where youth meet individuals other than those of their family environment. Besides, many people from the Interior leave their regions to study in Muscat. They stay in dormitories or in shared flats and go back to their families on the weekend. Nevertheless, occasions to extricate from this environment are rare. Young adults from the Interior often envision their professional future in Muscat, which makes them develop relationships that uproot them from their homes. Once they finish their studies, most of them come back to their region because of the lack of ties that could have helped them fit into Muscat’s labor market.

29Y’s intervention in this landscape is to furnish opportunities to meet new people and move outside the family circle, while enriching one’s professional network. A survey helped us to understand how a supposedly work-oriented company could gather both personal and professional purposes at once. To the question “Why did you want to join the organization?”, answers varied from “To spend time for something useful”, “To try something new and participate in programs that benefit the community”, “To share common interests”, “It is an extension of the youth activities that we used to do at the university”, but also to “I felt like it was my home and my family”. In fact, the idea of “family” (ʿâʾila) to name the atmosphere in the company is often mentioned by the participants. Rather than recognizing a professional ambience as an experience to further integrate the labor market, what makes the company continue is its informal atmosphere. Indeed, the word-of-mouth effect ends up rounding up many friends, cousins, brothers or sisters of the members and participants. This aspect reinforces the impression of familiarity, while the decontextualized environment – from the household or university – generates new kinds of ties that can be more easily oriented towards professional purposes.

30The recent loss of one of Y’s most active members, is a striking example of the empathetic ties that are developed within the company. When he first learned of her death, Ahmed explained that he felt a genuine need to express his condolences, which are normally addressed to the relatives of the deceased on the day of the funeral. But Ahmed could not do it because he did not know her family. However, for him and for Y community, this person was counted as a member of another family, one created outside of the biological one. This anecdote illustrates the decompartmentalization that resides between the family environment and the world of work. Indeed, the informal aspect of the ties is also what some take as the reason for their professional improvement. Khulood, who was a member since the beginning and now an employee in a public financial regulatory institution, recalls the relationships she developed with other members:

  • 55 Interview, online, July 4, 2020.

“They are one of the deepest relationships [I had], even if we knew them late, we didn’t study together, we knew them recently and the meetings were short and rare. But the relations were very intimate, and we felt like a family; [we keep communicating with each other] until now, they are all like one here, there are happy and encourage each other. [...] and you know, now when I go to visit them, I feel I want [to stay] connected with them, it is like the family I can’t leave, and if I am far, I just want anything to bring me back [to them].”55

31Regretting not being able to frequent the company anymore because of her job duties today, Khulood identified informality in the company as a key to her professional success. This example shows that this feature is not antithetical to the goals of the company. Based on similar relational aspects to that of family, in fact, it is considered as a filter or a language through which the professional one is better understood for young adults. This specificity eventually performs a generational identity, by offering an intermediate nest, and a smooth transition between the private and public spheres of social life in the discovery of adulthood.

3. Diversity and Community-building

32One of the reasons why informality is important for the audience to adhere to the company can be related to the social diversity of both the team and the audience. Be it in terms of gender, socioeconomic, or ethnolinguistic belongings, Y’s community is the image of Oman’s various population. This aspect is even evoked by its members as an asset for self-improvement and to acquire “life skills”. The diverse community that composes the company rests on the organizers’ desire to reach a wider audience, particularly people from more modest backgrounds who hold few diplomas or have faced educational difficulties; the notion of economic background being related to that of educational success.

33This is the case of Mohammed, 32 years old, who created a volunteering program thanks to one of the trainings. Originating from the Interior, he left his studies after one year to enter the workforce. Mohammed has often changed jobs. First selling clothes, then cars, before becoming a driver for a while, he felt the need to reinforce his skills and followed several trainings in trade. With time, he realized that he wanted to work in volunteering with youth. He then integrated Y, which helped him to develop an association of similar goals in his region of origin. Less educated, and financially disadvantaged in comparison to the other members, Mohammed recalls how the “respectful” atmosphere made him minimize the negative image he used to associate with his background, until reconsidering it as a strength:

  • 56 Interview, online, June 30, 2020.

“Everyone was willing to help, and they are always smiling, they accept each other even if they disagree. Despite people came from different places, backgrounds, ethnicity, [the] team respected them all and they were focusing on giving respect to everyone. They just want to change your ideas to the best. I felt jealous, if those people were able to give, why shouldn’t I do things like them? They were very inspiring.”56

  • 57 Wyn, 2012, p. 55.

34What Mohammed expresses here is his “biographical choice”57, that is, the development of a narrative capable of differentiating personal motives from external influences. However, in this case, one can notice the assimilation of both – that of Y and his own. In the interviewees’ words, and similarly to the company’s narrative, importance is given to the capacity of distinguishing oneself from the community, in accordance with an individual sense of priorities and responsibility, by the very experience of diversity to face differences and to find oneself in the crowd.

  • 58 Program report.

35The notion of diversity also includes gender. As daily life is governed by separated activities between men and women, the university is the first place where youth experience gender mixing (îkhtilâṭ). Similarly addressed in Y, the members and participants learn how “to deal” with the other sex during the events and activities. For its third edition in 2020, one of the programs delivered counted 82% of women, a situation that is experienced in other programs too58. In this case however, talking about gender diversity would rather correspond to a majority female population. The reason why so many young women attend it can be explained by the duration of their studies and the lesser imperative given to finding a job in comparison with men. Women tend to study longer, which delays their entry into the job market, while men rather specialize rapidly in professionalizing fields. This difference is due to the financial expectations men are responsible for. As soon as they get married, they are often required to support their families financially, and a large majority of marriage costs is their due. For those whose job does not correspond to their specialization, they prefer to find a job very soon instead of spending more time in their education – or enrolling in programs such as those offered by Y.

  • 59 Informal discussion, 2021.
  • 60 Program report.

36However, gender mixing is not to everyone’s taste, and even though diversity is put at the core of the organization’s narratives, Y’s community is composed of people from similar backgrounds. One member confided that gender mixing made him uncomfortable, particularly in regard to Islamic precepts that contraindicate such situations59. On the opposite, testimonies employed in Y’s advertisement emphasizes this feature as an asset to further develop self-confidence while speaking in a mixed public60. As for ethnic or socioeconomic belongings, many of them come from average strata, they are not particularly advantaged economically and have studied until bachelor’s degree for the majority. This difference is more striking compared to the few similar structures dedicated to youth employment. As their activities are generally more expensive, they gather people from higher socioeconomic backgrounds, which intersect with ethnic and tribal belongings. Other organizations may gather individuals from other origins, while Y’s audience is mostly from middle-class backgrounds, which also explains why familiarity and informality are more likely to emulate within its community.

III. Acting Beyond Space and Time

  • 61 Varghese, 2011.

37The efforts made to answer to the variety of statuses encompass youth diversity in Oman. Indeed, this generation includes groups of age whose needs are different; their living place, marital or professional statuses and education differ largely. In addition to gender variation61, people from rural areas get married younger and tend to study for shorter periods than the Muscatis. Y hence launched projects that could address a wider audience in terms of age or geographical area. In this section, we focus on the company from a broader perspective, through the evocation of the last programs implemented to attract other types of youth. As we will describe, subsequent issues appeared in its organization and adaptation. Observing these variations allows us to draw hypotheses on the prevalent perception of “young worker” in the company. We further address this aspect by comparing the company to others, specialized in youth employment.

1. The Transitional Nature of Y

38Y’s team has known many waves of arrival and departure, be it from the founders, the employees, or the participants. The main type of individuals who come and go are the volunteers and trainees, who are generally students or recent graduates. They integrate Y to enrich their résumé, valorize their free time and begin to earn money for trainees. As for the members and founders, Y has experienced several splits and departures. These situations required an adjustment of the programs to permanently renew teams and train the recruits. Indeed, participants differ for each activity. Although this turnover is expected for the participants’ part, the company faces this problem with the members, employees and even founders.

  • 62 Rules and regulations of the Ministry of Trade and Banks prevent SMEs’ employees to take loans if t (...)

39This peculiarity seems to be related to the fickle aspect of the company. As an SME that depends on sponsors, salaries can be low in comparison to the work performed. It is also due to the nature of the company, whose aim is to help people to find a job at the threshold of the adult world. People who integrate Y see their experience as transitional, a first step into the job market before finding long-term jobs elsewhere. Many members leave the organization regularly to look for higher-paying jobs. As one of the members mentioned, working at Y stopped him from taking a loan and buying a house to settle with his wife at the beginning of their marriage. Indeed, SMEs are a category of company whose employees are not allowed to take loans62. These flows contribute to reinforcing the perception of Y as a first professional experience, which complexifies the stability of its organization that has no other choice than to remain an ever-changing and transitional structure, as youth is.

40Registration fees to enroll in the activities can also explain the transitional nature of Y. Even though it is accessible for most, some programs can reach the price of 45 Omani rials (approximately 100 euros), as is the case for a four-days program dedicated to enhancing work awareness among teenagers. In this context, students or job seekers who do not have any income of their own, cannot afford the fees, although they represent the audience targeted by such programs. In the end, Y faces a mise en abîme which consists in the fear from the participants to be selected according to their informal connections. To register, they must fill out online forms, and are asked about their interest in the activities, either by choosing between pre-set answers or by writing a free answer. For the team, this format aims at encouraging the participants’ seriousness. They prefer selecting people who answer these questions with personal insights and wide answers than those who leave blanks. Some are selected after several attempts, which purpose is to consider the enrollment as a reward for the candidates’ endurance. However, this procedure is sometimes perceived as favoritism, particularly because the applications are not anonymous. For the founders, seeing Y as such is probably due to youth’s assumptions on the job market. Although informal connections have their advantages, the participants also associate it with a privileged-class practice, and the fact that the registration fees are high might reinforce these impressions.

2. One Perception of Success, Different Audiences

  • 63 Valeri, 2013, p. 38.

41Since unemployment was particularly strong in the rural areas during the economic crisis63, Y tried to address other regions of the Sultanate. A good example of a program conducted outside Muscat started in 2016, whose aim was to teach financial literacy and help young people in financial planning. Implemented on the base of the participants’ feedback from previous programs, this one was the result of long questioning on youth’s economic independence and the need for resources other than family support, or, simply put, a need to initiate youth on how money works. Indeed, many of them get well-paid jobs but they are reproached by their families for taking bad financial decisions because of their young age. Their choices in expenditure are regarded in relation to a desire for enjoyment or short-term pleasures – by buying expensive, fashionable cars, for example –, regardless of saving money for their future. According to the trainers, money should rather be saved for long-term goals, such as marriage organization which includes a dowry provided by the groom, celebrations expenditure, to rent a flat, or build a house for their family to come.

42Since the team had no experience in finance and educational programs at that time, Y hired a consultant and teamed up with experts in educational programs for the creation of the content. The groups worked together to design a program that had to be informative, creative, and enjoyable. After analyzing the young Omanis’ modes of consumption, the team decided upon the most important needs of youth in Oman to be discussed in the workshops. These needs were summed up in four main ideas, including personal planning, saving, investing, and banking terminologies. This program is run through real-life situations, such as the comparison between a person who would buy an expensive car and another who would buy a second-hand one. In such a case, the participant is invited to discuss the consequences of long-term and short-term payments. Another exercise is to assess the best decisions in the expenditure of a monthly budget to satisfy a household’s needs. Budget tables have been designed to train the participants in managing their monthly payments. They first have to note their salaries; the amount of money they spend on basic needs (food, electricity, water, car installments, savings); and extra expenses such as mobile phone costs, clothes and leisure. As they fill out their forms, the participants go through some obstacles. Presented in the form of a board game, they are put in situations where they either lose money, have an accident, get a promotion, or make some profit from their business.

  • 64 Varghese, 2011, p. 38.

43The program was delivered to almost all the regions in Oman from Northern Musandam to South-Western Dhofar. It received a total of 2600 participants in the rural areas, which indicates a great need for support in the other regions of the Sultanate. The first 2016 version was only for graduates and employees, and the next ones included a wider variety of young people such as students, recent graduates, job seekers, newly employed youth or entrepreneurs. In order to address the diversity of economic statuses, Y aimed at targeting new ranges of young adults in 2020, such as recently married couples and housewives (rabbat al-beit), which category was differentiated from “job seeker” (bâḥith ʿan ʿamal). This distinction, the content of the program, and the necessity to implement it outside Muscat, indicate a specific perception of work in relation to money management. Contrary to other programs, this one does not necessarily insist on professional skills or one’s adaptability and follows a very generic understanding of “work” that is motivated by economic independence. When put all together, the different programs draw a specific comprehension of individual accomplishment that rests on the importance of family as an “economic entity”64, which makes the group’s interests at its core, and professional success to satisfy it.

3. Competition and Sustainability

  • 65 Al-Ghassani, 2010, p. 77.

44Another reason why Y widened its audience is the arrival of competition during the same decades. This is the case of Injaz, launched in 2006 and dedicated to entrepreneurship training. As part of an international NGO, Injaz already proved its worth in other Arab countries. The programs include topics such as entrepreneurship, “work readiness”, financial literacy, and digital skills65. Although it benefits from generous sponsors in the bank sector, its main workforce is volunteers. Injaz is non-profitable, either for potential employees or through fees than could be required from the participants, while the costs of the programs are paid by the universities and schools involved. Injaz and other companies offer similar programs. They also interact with each other through consultancy one for the other, and Y is often solicited by others to design programs or to hire trainers. Other governmental initiatives do exist, but they are largely oriented toward business and entrepreneurship fields, which limits their actions to restricted areas.

45However, the striking difference in resources and organization of these companies induces a variation in their audience and goals. As Y is private and the salary of its employees depends on the programs’ effectiveness and attendance, attention is given to its sustainability, which explains some financial difficulties and the members’ turnover. Differences in resources also affect the programs’ content and sustainability, since relying on sponsors can lead to modifying a program’s content. The pandemic Covid-19 situation has, for example, led the team to reconsider the expenses of its funding. The instructors decided to implement it online, which needed to justify supplementary expenses to hire programmers, and to train instructors in e-learning software. As the sponsor often requests quantitative results, in 2020 the team saw a decrease in participants in comparison to the previous offline versions. It already happened that the company could not afford to organize some gatherings due to a lack of sponsors. They would rather reduce their duration to an afternoon presentation and discussions in public places (such as university campuses) because of their free cost or would invite volunteers rather than hiring trainers. This can also explain why some members have left Y to join other structures as they offer more advantageous, sustainable salaries.

Conclusion

46The fact that youth initiatives have become significantly numerous during the last decade, is to analyze in relation to Oman Vision 2040, as its aim, alongside Omanization policies and education, is to help youth to obtain greater specializations to integrate the job market in the first place. To illustrate these ongoing initiatives, and youth dynamism that characterizes Oman today, we have focused on Y, which proves to be more than a set of services for job search solely. Addressed in this article as a window on the underlying mechanisms of youth participation in Omani society, it appeared that many young people tend to struggle to be recognized by their society, especially when it comes to work. The study-to-work transition, shows that these difficulties are one of the most salient characteristics to consider in defining youth as a proper category of age. Governmental decisions have enabled the Sultanate to develop and modernize education over time, which aspects participate in circumscribing youth temporally and socially. By describing how they build their own professional initiatives by the intermediary of Y, we have suggested considering this company as a metaphor for youth as a “society” of its own, which relies on a unique intertwinement of group interests and individual professional success.

47Youth in this context distinguish themselves not only from other generations but also from their society as a whole, and function as a population whose autonomy stems from larger social, political, and economic structures that are all embedded in Oman’s complexity. There is therefore no doubt that Oman Vision 2040, although it started only three years ago, already shows positive impacts on Omani society. Long-term studies will allow us to confirm these impressions which, we hope, will contribute to the understanding of a society that is resolutely evolutive.

48Disclaimer: The analysis presented in this article is that of the authors. It does not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the organization described or its members. Any claim or request may be addressed to the authors.

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Notes

1 The organization and respondents’ names have been anonymized to respect their identity.

2 Valeri, 2013; Worrall, 2020.

3 Vision Document [Draft], Oman Vision 2040, 11 September 2019.

4 Valeri, 2011.

5 Ibid.

6 Louër, 2015.

7 “How is Oman Reacting to Low Oil Prices?”, The World Bank, online. URL: https://www.worldbank.org/en/country/gcc/publication/economic-brief-oman-july-2016

8 Calabrese, 2018.

9 Yamani, 2012, p. 187.

10 Ibid., p. 114.

11 Valeri, 2015.

12 Program report.

13 Sebiane et al., 2022.

14 Khalaf & Saad Khalaf, 2012; Menoret, 2014.

15 What Johannes Fabian (1983) invites to in his fierce criticism of the allochronic effects induced by anthropological writing.

16 Miran, 2010; Clifford, 1983.

17 Adams et al., 2017.

18 Jackson & Mazzei, 2008, p. 302.

19 Higher Education Admission Statistics, 2020/2021, Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Innovation, p. 38.

20 Beaugrand, 2004, p. 2.

21 Ibid., p. 26.

22 ash-shabâb w al-‘amal [Youth and work], National Center for Statistics and Information, Oman, 2018, p. 4.

23 Belwal et al., 2005.

24 De Bel-Air, 2018.

25 The notion of “Interior” refers here to the regions outside Muscat city.

26 Interview, online, August 18, 2020.

27  Interview found on a Saudi online forum – June 2020.

28 Das & Gokhale, 2010.

29 Ibid.

30 Ibid.

31 These conditions vary according to the company or employer’s statuses. See Ministerial Decree No. 520/2013, Ministry of Manpower, Sultanate of Oman, Official Gazette, No. 1028, September 23, 2013; and Ministerial Decree No. 115/2021.

32 Khalaf, 2006, p. 256.

33 The 2013 decree has been modified in 2021. The latest version states that working in the private sector should be part-time when the employee is either retired or a student. See Ministerial Decree No. 115/2021. See also: https://www.omanobserver.om/article/1103686/oman/labour/new-decision-on-part-time-employment-of-juveniles

34 Interview, online, June 15, 2020.

35 Ibid.

36 Ibid.

37 Ibid.

38 Belwal et al., 2015, p. 925.

39 Ibid., p. 930.

40 Scanlan & Flexman, 1980; Frank, 2007.

41 Interview, online, June 15, 2020.

42 Ibid.

43 Interview, online, June 14, 2020.

44 Program report.

45 Informal discussion, 2021.

46 Moghadam, 2005.

47 Carter Hallwards & Bekdash Muellers, 2019, p. 7.

48 Wyn, 2012, p. 64.

49 Carter Hallwards & Bekdash Muellers, 2019, p. 7.

50 Wyn, 2012, p. 61.

51 Al-Saqri, 2019.

52 Beaugrand, 2004, p. 1; Honvault & al-Rashoud, 2019.

53 Eickelman, 2002, p. 233.

54 Interview, online, August 16, 2020.

55 Interview, online, July 4, 2020.

56 Interview, online, June 30, 2020.

57 Wyn, 2012, p. 55.

58 Program report.

59 Informal discussion, 2021.

60 Program report.

61 Varghese, 2011.

62 Rules and regulations of the Ministry of Trade and Banks prevent SMEs’ employees to take loans if the company is composed of less than 100 employees.

63 Valeri, 2013, p. 38.

64 Varghese, 2011, p. 38.

65 Al-Ghassani, 2010, p. 77.

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Marion Breteau et Ahmed al-Suleimani, « Education, Youth and Employment in Oman », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 16 | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2022, consulté le 02 octobre 2022. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/cy/8329 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/cy.8329

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Auteurs

Marion Breteau

American University of Kuwait, CEFREPA Kuwait, marionbreteau[at]hotmail.fr

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Ahmed al-Suleimani

Independent researcher

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