As the United States relies on firepower to try to crush extremism in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen, it might instead consider the lesson of the remarkable Arab country of Oman.
Just 40 years ago, Oman was one of the most hidebound societies in the world. There was no television, and radios were banned as the work of the devil. There were no Omani diplomats abroad, and the sultan kept his country in almost complete isolation.
Oman, a country about the size of Kansas, had just six miles of paved road, and the majority of the population was illiterate and fiercely tribal. The country had a measly three schools serving 909 pupils — all boys in primary grades. Not one girl in Oman was in school.
Oman’s capital city, Muscat, nestled among rocky hills in the desert of the Arabian Peninsula, was surrounded by a traditional wall. At dusk, the authorities would fire a cannon and then close the city’s gates for the night. Anyone seen walking outside without a torch at night was subject to being shot.
Oman was historically similar to its neighbor, Yemen, which now has become an incubator for Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists. But, in 1970, Oman left that fundamentalist track: the sultan’s son deposed his father and started a stunning modernization built around education for boys and girls alike.
Visit Oman today, and it is a contemporary country with highways, sleek new airports, satellite TV dishes and a range of public and private universities. Children start studying English and computers in the first grade. Boys and girls alike are expected to finish high school at least.
It’s peaceful and pro-Western, without the widespread fundamentalism and terrorism that afflict Yemen. Granted, Yemen may be the most beautiful country in the Arab world, but my hunch is that many of the young Westerners who study Arabic there will end up relocating to Oman because of the tranquility here.
It’s particularly striking how the role of women has been transformed. One 18-year-old university student I spoke to, Rihab Ahmed al-Rhabi, told me (in fluent English) of her interest in entrepreneurship. She also told me, affectionately, about her grandmother who is illiterate, was married at age 9 and bore 10 children.
As for Ms. Rhabi, she mentioned that she doesn’t want to bog herself down with a husband anytime soon. Otherwise, what if her husband didn’t want her to study abroad? And when she does eventually marry, she mused, one child would be about right.
Ms. Rhabi was a member of the Omani all-girls team that won the gold medal in an entrepreneurship competition across the Arab world last year. The contest was organized by Injaz, a superb organization that goes into schools around the Arab world to train young people in starting and running small businesses.
The stand-out young entrepreneurs in Oman today are mostly female: 9 of the 11 finalists in this year’s Oman entrepreneurship contest were all-girl teams. The winning team bowled me over. The members started as high school juniors by forming a company to publish children’s picture books in Arabic. They raised capital, conducted market research, designed and wrote the books and oversaw marketing and distribution.
“We’re now looking at publishing e-books,” explained Ameera Tariq, a high school senior and a member of the board of directors of the team’s book company. Maybe one of the customers for a future electronic picture book will be her grandmother, who was married at the age of 12 and has never learned to read.
In short, one of the lessons of Oman is that one of the best and most cost-effective ways to tame extremism is to promote education for all.
Many researchers have found links between rising education and reduced conflict. One study published in 2006, for example, suggested that a doubling of primary school enrollment in a poor country was associated with halving the risk of civil war. Another found that raising the average educational attainment in a country by a single grade could significantly reduce the risk of conflict.
Sorry if this emphasis on education sounds like a cliché. It’s widely acknowledged in theory, and President Obama pledged as a candidate that he would start a $2 billion global education fund. But nothing has come of it. Instead, he’s spending 50 times as much this year alone on American troops in Afghanistan — even though military solutions don’t have as good a record in trouble spots as education does.
The pattern seems widespread: Everybody gives lip service to education, but nobody funds it.
For me, the lesson of Oman has to do with my next stops on this trip: Afghanistan and Pakistan. If we want to see them recast as peaceful societies, then let’s try investing less in bombs and more in schools.