The Three Muscats: Immigrant Poverty and Animal Welfare in Oman

I’m in Muscat, Oman, for a month. I’ve been here for a week and a half and it’s been an interesting experience.

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First-world Muscat, at the harbor where cruise ships & the Sultan’s yacht dock.

My impression thus far is that there are two Muscats. One is an expensive, well air-conditioned city, full of malls and Starbucks, peopled by expats and Omanis alike spending the equivalent of 8 US dollars on a latte. The other is equally oriented out of the Arab world, but toward India, Bangladesh, Pakistan. In that Muscat you can get the most amazing dosa you’ve ever had, with all the accompaniments for .700 Omani Rial—about $1.80.

I suspect there’s a third Muscat as well, one accessible mostly to Omanis, where people eat actual Omani food. I suspect that’s the Muscat where regular Omani families live—ones who haven’t been educated abroad, who aren’t members of an international, moneyed elite. That’s an Oman I’m unlikely to access anytime soon, one that is guarded from the non-Omanis who outnumber nationals by almost 2 to 1 in the capital city and legally and economically protected by the government’s plan for the “Omanization” of the nation’s workforce.

I suppose you could say this about anywhere—that there’s a society of the well-off co-existing in the same space as a separate world belonging to  the poor. But something about Oman’s stratification feels different to me. A big part of it is that the poor here are immigrants. They have come here for economic opportunity: my vision of poverty is them doing better than they could in Bangladesh, I guess. This poverty is male: there are relatively few women. It is also entirely separated—by language, custom, dress—from other parts of society. And I see a total lack of any sense of entitlement, that they deserve more or better, as much as others have. There is a deferential attitude among the dark-skinned men who live on site, ten men to a dingy room, to clean my company’s building, and don’t seem to mind when other employees refer to them as “boy.” I feel myself raging at the international division of labor on their behalf, and then I feel ashamed of the naivete and privilege (racial, national) from which my feelings derive. One imagines that not having air conditioning and being called “boy” are the least of these men’s worries. You see these men, often in large groups, everywhere in Muscat–construction workers living in shanties constructed out of cast off building materials; a hundred men in identical brown or blue uniforms, sitting on a hill at the edge of the expressway, waiting for a bus to take them to their lodgings at the end of the day. And this is Muscat, not Dubai.

I haven’t mentioned yet the overwhelming animal rights catastrophe that is Oman. Certainly, it seems true that the less well-off, the less developed the society, the less it has the luxury to care about humane treatment of animals. Less well off, less developed: in this case these are extremely relative terms. I’ve seen packs of stray dogs on the streets of New Orleans, starving cats and dogs coexisting on restaurant patios in Bucharest, the fat stray dogs trotting along beside the hordes of tourists in Pompeii. But the situation in Oman, which developed later than Europe or America, is categorically different. There is no institutional concern, no matter how incomplete, for cats and dogs, whatsoever. There are no animal shelters. I come from a city with a vibrant no-kill shelter system, where city politicians are attempting to make the city kill-free. Oman hasn’t yet even reached the stage of humane euthanasia. Dogs and cats simply roam free, reproducing, until they are hit by a car, starve to death, are tortured or killed for sport, or otherwise die. I’m seeing upward of 10 or 15 different stray animals a day.

At a nice Arabic restaurant on my first visit to Oman, before I understood the gravity of the situation, my friends and I were dining outside when a cat wandered over and jumped on my lap. I assumed this was a cat who belonged to the restaurant—this was cool. But no. This cat has learned to act cute to people in the hope of a scrap of food. I cannot bring myself to go back to the famous Mutrah Souq because of all the starving cats I’ve seen there.

Out in the suburbs, there are dogs, roaming in packs. In the center of the city, at dawn and at night, there are cats. Last night I went to the new Panorama Mall in al Khuwair, a sector of the city that is experiencing much development. The mall is new, bright, sparkling with wealth. There’s laser tag, a food court, a Costa Coffee. There’s some kind of fancy hotel in the middle of it. There are high end European and Asian stores. Outside, as when you park at any of the malls,  a Bangladeshi man will attempt to convince you to let him wash your car for 1.500 rial while you shop.

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Friendly stray kitten in Al Athaibah

I walked up the steps and saw a stray cat come out of the mall when I triggered the automatic doors. The cat skittered away, dodging some white people behind me who were still at the stage of muttering “oh, how cute.” I couldn’t imagine where that cat was going to go in the under-under-under city of Muscat, between the mad drivers on the expressway, the guy trying to get people to pay him pennies to wash their car, the shining expanse of the shopping mall. I felt queasy. And I ate supper anyway, with a pit of complicated shame and culpability in my stomach.

Sultan Qaboos, this American hopes that building an infrastructure to improve animal welfare will one day become part of your plan for modernizing Oman. In the meantime, I’ll support private organizations, such as Omani Paws and Al Qurum Veterinary Clinic, that help the stray animals of Muscat.