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Austin Bodetti

The cultural diplomacy bridging Oman and the US

Oman hopes that the recipients of these grants will inform others of their experiences [Getty]

Date of publication: 13 April, 2018

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Society: Oman has turned an academic connection with the Western world into an opportunity to promote cultural diplomacy, sponsoring scholarships for dozens of American students every summer, reports Austin Bodetti.
Often absent from international coverage of the Middle East, which tends to focus on the civil wars raging from Libya to Syria, Oman has earned a reputation for stability in a region largely devoid of it. 

Alongside Jordan, Morocco and a handful of others, it remains one of the few places in the Arab world where American universities can send their students to learn Arabic. Oman has turned this academic connection with the Western world into an opportunity to promote cultural diplomacy with the United States, sponsoring scholarships for two dozen of these American students every summer.

Every year, the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center (SQCC) offers scholarships to 24 American students as part of the Summer Arabic Language and Media (SALAM) programme.

The scholarships cover the price of room and board, textbooks, tuition, and weekend excursions during the students' stay at the Sultan Qaboos College for Teaching Arabic to Non-Native Speakers (SQCTA). The students are working toward bachelors degrees, masters degrees, and doctorates that may require the proficiency in Arabic promised by the instructors at SQCTA.

The students stay in Manah, a small town in the hinterland of Oman, about two hours' drive from Muscat, the Omani capital. Per the SALAM website, students engage in weekly excursions and lectures in addition to their five days a week in the classroom, improving their understanding not only of Arabic but also Oman itself during their two-month stay from late June to late August.

SQCC represents a Washington-based Omani initiative to promote cultural diplomacy between Oman and the US through educational exchange. It administers SALAM and several similar programmes, such as a fellowship for American professors to conduct research in Oman and a scholarship for American students to study Arabic in the US, a domestic alternative to SALAM.
Oman hopes that the recipients of these grants will then inform others of their experiences and the benefits of further relations between Oman and the US, which has enjoyed close ties with Oman for centuries

Oman hopes that the recipients of these grants will then inform others of their experiences and the benefits of further relations between Oman and the US, which has enjoyed close ties with Oman for centuries.

Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said, the sultanate's ruler since 1970, in particular has worked to foster cultural, diplomatic, and educational contacts between the two countries.

"I really enjoyed my experience with the SALAM programme and the staff were absolutely wonderful," said Michael Salib, a student from Boston College learning Modern Standard Arabic who studied in Oman in summer 2017.

"They genuinely took an interest in us, and, as an Egyptian-American with family still in the Middle East, I felt genuinely connected to them."

Salib confirmed that SALAM improved his appreciation of Oman and confirmed the importance of cultural diplomacy between Americans and Omanis.

"In regards to Oman, I knew next to nothing before getting accepted into the programme and gained only a bit of insight from my parents,” he told The New Arab.

"The programme, and the people of Oman, far exceeded my expectations of hospitality and treated me and my fellow students incredibly well. The Omani people not only are welcoming and friendly but also go out of their way to make people feel like Oman is a place to be called home."

Oman has cooperated with the US on several academic fronts, working with the State Department on the US' own initiatives to improve cultural diplomacy with the Middle East and the wider Arab world.

Oman has cooperated with the US on several academic fronts, working with the State Department on the US' own initiatives to improve cultural diplomacy with the Middle East

The Critical Language Scholarship Programme, through which the State Department funds American students' travel to and study in several countries that speak languages of interest to the US, sends several recipients to Oman every summer. The Fulbright Programme, another State Department initiative, selects one American a year to conduct research on a topic of that student's choosing in Oman.

This academic engagement speaks to Oman's wider history of supporting conflict resolution and cultural diplomacy in the Middle East.

The country helped Iran and the US negotiate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the 2015 treaty that led to Iran's partial denuclearisation, and Oman has conducted shuttle diplomacy between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which has spearheaded a blockade of Qatar since last year. In an effort to avoid perpetuating what would become one of the bloodiest wars in the region, Oman even declined to join the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen in 2015.

In a region known far more for conflict than conflict resolution, Oman has cultivated a reputation as a neutral country proficient in behind-the-scenes peacebuilding.

Through initiatives such as SALAM, it is teaching the next generation of American academics, diplomats and professionals the importance of cultural diplomacy between the Arab and Western worlds, training a cadre of potential peacemakers in the process.

With SALAM, Oman may succeed in bridging some of the gaps between the West and the Middle East, improving a relationship often characterised by animosity and misunderstanding.

Austin Bodetti is a freelance journalist focusing on conflict in the greater Middle East and a student in the Gabelli Presidential Scholars Program at Boston College majoring in Islamic Civilization and Societies and studying Arabic and Persian. 

He has reported from Indonesia, Iraq, Myanmar, South Sudan and Thailand, and his writing has appeared in Motherboard, The Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, Wired, and Yahoo News.

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