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Between two worlds


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Business Spotlight - epaper ⋅ Ausgabe 10/2021 vom 22.09.2021

INTERCULTURAL BUSINESS

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Oman life: the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque 24 Business Spotlight 10/2021 COMMUNICATION in Muscat

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It’s December 2014 and Sarah Hale has just been told she is about to lose her job in Oman. Two years earlier, she had returned from a spell in the US, where she had been receiving treatment for cancer. Her job responsibilities in Oman had ranged from marketing to photography with Amideast, an American non-profit training and education organization in the Middle East and North Africa. Hale had a month to find a new job. If she didn’t, she’d lose her visa and would have to leave.

Today, Hale’s life is transformed. She’s a founding partner of Booma, a thriving photography and video-making business. Even during the pandemic, she’s had a long line of Omanis wanting her to take their wedding photos and family portraits.

Learning new skills

Hale’s career owes much to her talent, determination and hard work — but also to the US–Oman Free Trade Agreement (FTA) of 2009. This ...

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... made it easier for US citizens to get visas to work in Oman.

Born in a suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1988, Hale graduated with a degree in photojournalism from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, in 2010. With the US economy suffering from the effects of the financial crisis, the FTA couldn’t have come at a better time. “Journalists came to speak to us and basically told us to do anything we could,” says Hale. “They said we should get other skills because we wouldn’t find a job. So the last semester, we learned graphic design, about websites, videography and anything else that we could.”

The approach paid off, although it took Hale a few years to realize her dream of becoming a professional photographer. She was already a member of AIESEC —a not-for-profit organization that provides young people with international volunteering and work opportunities — with which she had done a ten-month internship. They helped her to get her job in Oman with Amideast.

Hale knew little about the country but was intrigued when she received an urgent email offering her a job. The pay was $1,200 (€1,020) a month at a time when the best that many journalism graduates could hope for was an unpaid internship. She jumped at the chance.

Hale worked happily as an English teacher for 14- and 15-yearold Omanis for a year. Her life changed radically, however, when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at the age of only 23. In January 2012, she headed back to the US for treatment, which was successful, and returned to Amideast in October. Two years later came the news that they had lost funding and she would no longer have a job.

Understanding the culture

Fortunately, Hale had expanded her horizons in these two years, which included shooting weddings with a photo and video production company. “I loved my job, but obviously non-profits don’t pay the best, so I had already started freelancing with another company at weekends,” she explains. “I simply asked them if they had “I can’t a full-time job. They were expanding and they gave me a two-year contract.”

During this period, Hale began to understand better the nuances of Omani society and culture — and her clients wishes. “I can’t imagine starting a business without that cultural knowledge,” she says. “I can’t imagine just rocking up in Oman and hoping for the best.”

Towards the end of Hale’s contract in 2016, with clients full of praise for her work, cultural knowledge and sensitivity, people began to suggest that she form her own company. She did so and has never looked back. “I benefit from being a woman photographer in Oman. It’s a niche market. A lot of the things we do are women-only. The weddings are women-only because they are gender-segregated. Even birthday parties are sometimes only women and kids. There are quite a few events for which clients prefer only women photographers.”

Starting a business

Hale launched the company Booma in 2017, a process she says was relatively simple but could have gone more quickly, as most of the formalities were done on paper. It took four months, for example, to open a bank account because she also had to register the account in the US. “The Omani bank seemed perplexed by it and they made a lot of mistakes,” she says.

As a result of the FTA, Hale was able to get an investor’s visa, which cost $800 (€680) for two years at the time. (They now cost many thousands of dollars, depending on the type, she says.) But because this was a switch from a working visa, it required her to leave the country until it was ready.

It didn’t take long, but when she returned, the border officials also seemed perplexed. “They said something like: ‘This is an investor’s visa. But you’re a woman.’ I replied: ‘Omani women own businesses and I’m sure you know women who own businesses.’” Hale describes the stereotype of the expat wife: “When they see a Caucasian woman, they assume that I’m the stay-at-home wife of someone working in the oilfields.”

“I can’t imagine starting a business without the cultural knowledge”

Hale set up Booma with a local partner, Sami al Asmi, who has become essential to the way the company operates: networks are hugely important in Oman and revolve around tribes. “Last names depict the tribe you are from,” Hale explains. “And it’s very close-knit. The only time they generally go outside of that is maybe with schoolmates.”

Originally, al Asmi had a full-time government job, but helped out in formalizing the business set-up by using his extensive list of contacts. Together with his bilingual skills (Arabic and English), his role at Booma has grown to take advantage of this. Together, Hale and al Asmi brainstorm photo and video ideas, and discuss whom they will need for a shoot. It’s then often left to al Asmi to organize contracts and contacts, while Hale focuses on the creative side.

Contacts and challenges

Booma gets commissions from a number of sources, although it’s frequently via recommendations within the tribal networks. The preferred way of communicating for Omanis is through WhatsApp. For a wedding, Hale arranges a meeting with the bride (rarely the groom), who might bring female friends or family with her. They discuss the setting and other details of the photoshoot.

A particular challenge relates to Islamic customs. Because the brides often do not cover their heads in wedding shoots, Hale is unable to get permission to use the pictures in her photographer’s portfolio. Often, nobody else is allowed to see the photos, not even al Asmi. “It makes marketing a challenge,” Hale says.

Booma was also hit by Covid-19, with weddings and other gatherings banned for long periods. Unperturbed, Hale adjusted her business to include portraits and was at times still doing 40 shoots a month in early 2021. By summer, however, with little prospect of getting a jab in Oman, she returned to the US to get vaccinated. She was back in Oman by early August.

After a decade in Oman, it’s hard for Hale to say which country she feels more at home in. On the one hand, Oman is not a democracy (see box, right). On the other hand, the US has major challenges of its own.

Hale speaks with passion about the mountains in Oman, the coastline, the generosity of the people and her love of her job. “But as an American, I do love our freedoms, such as freedom of speech,” she says. These freedoms, however, allow people in the US to make decisions that Hale disagrees with, such as nurses working without being vaccinated, which isn’t allowed in Oman.

Oman, she explains, “is not as open as somewhere like Dubai. You couldn’t walk around in a bikini, but in Oman, we don’t have to wear a headscarf — we do it only if we want to. I have mixed feelings about both countries. I feel as if I live between the two worlds — and I love them both.”

THE SULTANATE OF OMAN

● Inland, the country is arid and largely waterless, although Bedouins still inhabit this desert region. The more hospitable northern and coastal areas are where much of the population lives, in small towns and big, modern cities, such as the capital, Muscat.

● The majority of the around five million population is Muslim. More than half are Arab, with much of the rest Baluchi, Bengali and South Asian. Expatriates make up around 40 per cent, with thousands of Westerners working in the oil and gas industries.

● The Sultanate of Oman is an absolute

monarchy; the sultan rules by decree. Free speech is severely curtailed: criticism of the sultan or the government is not tolerated.

● Human rights abuses are reported to be widespread in prisons, and Oman has also been criticized for its treatment of foreign labourers, with allegations that thousands are little more than slaves.

● There were some (largely peaceful) protests during the Arab Spring of 2011. Omani authorities responded with repression, and the city of Sohar came under military rule.

Later, the sultan fired ministers and raised unemployment benefits and the minimum wage. There was no fundamental change to the system of rule, however.

● For decades, Oman has relied on the oil industry for its wealth but has diversified recently. Tourism now plays a major role, as do agricultural products. Its main export partner is China; others include India, Japan, South Korea, the UAE and Saudi Arabia.