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Captain gains knowledge, appreciation of Oman

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Tonnette Thompson
  • 82nd Training Wing Public Affairs
There's a stretch of land about the size of Kansas in the Middle East. 

It's surrounded by countries like Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Yet it has as much land covered by tropical jungles and mountain ranges as desert. It has a government with a financial surplus instead of debt, despite the build-up boon that took the country from having just six miles of paved road in 1970 to boasting hotels, hospitals, schools and paved roads everywhere today. 

It has women in the Sultan's cabinet, in positions equal to the Secretary of Defense. And it's been an ally of the United States since 1833. 

This country is Oman, the latest visited by members of the Joseph J. Malone Fellowship in Arab and Islamic Studies. For 16 days in late March, a group of academics and military personnel visited Oman for the sake of gaining knowledge of and exposure to Arabian culture, economics and politics. 

For Capt. Jason Howk of the 366th Training Squadron, one of the team members, it became a singular opportunity to get in touch with the people and learn things he's sure the average American may not know about this longtime friend. 

The fellowship visited museums and forts, met with U.S. ambassadors and Omani government representatives, and interacted with Omani natives. During his time among the locals, Captain Howk gained valuable knowledge about their tolerance of different cultures and religions, their hospitable nature, the noteworthy educational opportunities offered to children and young adults whose ambitions may not be unlike an American teen's, and the country's relationship with our own. 

Although the Omani are Muslim, about 65 percent of them practice under the Ibadi sect of Muslim faith. 

"The Ibadi sect is very tolerant, and people in Oman don't seem to have a problem with people who aren't Muslim at all," Captain Howk said. 

He developed his opinion from the sights of people of different faiths going about their business without harassment, non-Muslim women walking around with their hair and faces uncovered, and churches holding non-Muslim services without the need for security measures. He even attended a Hindu service in Oman with no problems. 

"Oman is the most tolerant Islamic country I've ever been in," he said. 

This casual attitude toward various religions translates to an openness toward all types of strangers, another trait Captain Howk noted. 

"They were so friendly and helpful; you are a guest in their country, and they feel it's their responsibility to make you feel welcome," Captain Howk said. 

During two trips, Captain Howk's team got flat tires in transit. On both occasions, Omani natives pulled over, ensured everyone was well, offered drinks and the use of cell phones, and stayed with the team until the tire was fixed. 

"If I were in the states, no one would have stopped," Captain Howk said. "I'd have been on my own." 

Whether in a meeting at the U.S. Embassy or in someone's home, the people treated them as welcome guests. When they walked in, Captain Howk said, one could be certain someone would soon offer refreshments. 

"It's an old Arabic custom, but one the Omani still practice with diligence," Captain Howk said. "They would get an A-plus in hospitality from me." 

Oman has more than 1,200 schools and learning centers. A visit to the country's leading bilingual school, the Sultan's School, gave Captain Howk insights on both the possibilities of Omani children and the similarities to American children. 

"I focused on Arabian and Islamic school students, looking for parallels between them and U.S. children. I asked them about their courses, what degrees they want to earn, how they spend their time after school, even what kind of music they like," Captain Howk said. 

He found a system with free education for everyone, a student population with 40 percent females, first graders who were already fluent in English and Arabic, dormitories for students who lived outside the nation's capital, and many students working toward degrees in law, medicine, engineering and business. 

The students perform various community services and charity fairs to raise funds for cancer patients, orphanages and the disabled, among others. Last year they raised 7,000 Omani Riyal - about $18,000 in American money. These deeds are done just to earn a casual day at school, a day to wear jeans and baseball caps instead of their school uniforms. 

"Aside from that, they're a lot like American (teenagers.) They like playing sports and hanging out after school, they look forward to getting their drivers' licenses when they turn 17. They even named bands like Linkin Park and System of a Down when I asked them what type of music they like," he said. 

Captain Howk said he believes the next step in Oman-U.S. relations is a free trade agreement. 

"There are only 10 other countries who have this arrangement with the United States, so this would be huge for Oman," Captain Howk said. 

"They are an ally in the war on terrorism, which is huge considering the countries around theirs. They stay pretty neutral, but they provide us access to their land. Seeb Air Base is there," Captain Howk said. 

"Oman's not a member of [the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries,] but they produce oil. They're pushing for more tourism and service industry in their country. They even allow people from other countries to purchase homes there, which is unusual in the Middle East," he said. 

All in all, Captain Howk left Oman with a very positive outlook on the tiny Middle Eastern country. 

"They're friendly, open, tolerant," he said. "Their leaders invest money in making their country and people better, which is a good example for the world."