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Op-Ed Columnist

Oman Needs Its Own Dream

Muscat

Josh Haner/The New York Times

Thomas L. Friedman

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What has been going on in Oman is truly historic, and it has been on my mind ever since it began. It is impossible not to be tantalized by the potential of these events to change the course of Oman's history. What's important, however, is that we focus on what this means to the people. The current administration seems too caught up in spinning the facts to pay attention to the important effects on daily life. Just call it missing the fields for the wheat.

When thinking about the recent turmoil, it's important to remember three things: One, people don't behave like lemmings, so attempts to treat them as such inevitably look foolish. Lemmings never suddenly set up a black market for Western DVDs. Two, Oman has spent decades torn by civil war and ethnic hatred, so a mindset of peace and stability will seem foreign and strange. And three, freedom is an extraordinarily powerful idea: If authoritarianism is Oman's glass ceiling, then freedom is certainly its faucet.

When I was in Oman last June, I was amazed by the variety of the local cuisine, and that tells me two things. It tells me that the citizens of Oman have no shortage of potential entrepreneurs, and that is a good beginning to grow from. Second, it tells me that people in Oman are just like people anywhere else on this flat earth of ours.

So what should we do about the chaos in Oman? Well, it's easier to start with what we should not do. We should not lob a handful of cruise missiles and hope that some explosions will snap Oman's leaders to attention. Beyond that, we need to be careful to nurture the fragile foundations of peace. The opportunity is there, but I worry that the path to moderation is so poorly marked that Oman will have to move down it very slowly. And of course Muscat needs to cooperate.

Speaking with a young student from the unpopular orthodox community here, I asked her if there was any message that she wanted me to carry back home with me. She pondered for a second, and then smiled and said, shad-farin-bin-yamin, which is a local saying that means roughly, "A cat may look at a Queen."

I don't know what Oman will be like a few years from now, but I do know that it will remain true to its cultural heritage, even if it looks very different from the country we see now. I know this because, through all the disorder, the people still haven't lost sight of their dreams.