My decade-long academic investigation into Omanis’ social media actions has revealed that one of the primary requests of Omani citizens over the past decade has been the establishment of a new form of public-government official relationship that promotes public welfare and enables both parties to work together for Oman’s benefit.
A rare opportunity to show off this new relationship has arisen with the COVID-19 pandemic. In response to the Omani Ministry of Education’s apprehensions about the 2020-2021 academic year, for instance, the public identified and shared optimal pandemic-era educational strategies on social media. Public satisfaction was ensured by the successful implementation of these measures by the ministry.
Additionally, when the Ministry of Health indicated that the COVID-19 virus would not be controlled during the second phase of the pandemic in summer 2020, the public construed the setback as an opportunity to formulate a unique, creative response to support the government in their public health mission.
Using WhatsApp stickers, Omani citizens created a public health awareness campaign. Besides supporting the government in enforcing social distancing measures within a collective society characterised by socialisation, this creative action by Omanis demonstrated the effectiveness of public-government cooperation in maintaining community health. The stickers fostered a sense of camaraderie between the public and government officials, of a kind rarely seen since 2011.
These actions intrigued me to further study the digital activities of Omani citizens, particularly those related to fostering healthy public-government relationships, strengthening the values of the Omani society, and implementing Oman Vision 2040. I was looking to emphasise the role social media has played in promoting civic engagement among Omanis.
By civic engagement I refer to actions taken by individuals or groups to identify and address social issues of public concern (in other words, civic engagement denotes community building).
Studies of this type are also considered important from an academic perspective – the majority of research regarding social media has highlighted the impact that social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram have had on indexing political dissent. That is why Sultan Qaboos University generously funded the civic engagement research project, as it is one of the few studies to examine the positive effects of social media on public welfare.
The research team and I posed three research questions – first, how do social media impact civic engagement in Oman? In other words, how do Twitter and Instagram, in particular, contribute to the construction of positive communities in Oman and the reinforcement of Omani national identity? Secondly, what are the forms and pragmatic functions of such civic engagements? For example, how do Omanis utilise their social media platforms to aid the Omani government in achieving its policy of peace and prosperity? Finally, yet importantly, what are the linguistic and multimodal characteristics of these posts? In other words, how do the posts foster public cooperation and build community?
Omanis engage in four types of digital civic engagement, according to the findings – reforming and enhancing services, reporting violations, and requesting policy changes constitute the primary online activity of Omanis. The second type aims at preserving Omani cultural and social norms, including highlighting Arabic language and national identity. The third civic engagement action of Omanis revolves around disseminating knowledge and providing guidance on a wide range of topics, from medical advice dispensed by Omani physicians to legal advice. This fourth type is focused on promoting Omani products, tourism, and Oman.
Through these actions, the public is promoted, cultural norms are sustained, community is built, support is provided, and policies are implemented in collaboration with the Omani government. As a result of identifying and exploring these actions, the government will be better able to understand Omanis and, in turn, benefit from digital services provided probono by the public in the form of tested methods and ideas for improved public welfare.
The Omani digital civic engagement project therefore explores unprecedented national features that are created and performed via social media by the Omani public. As a result, the project has practical benefits, as it shows how to build a nation with social media creativity.
NAJMA AL ZIDJALY
Najma is a writer concerned with topics on self, national and cultural development; researcher; and associate professor of social media and Arab Omani identity in the Department of English Language and
Literature (College of Arts & Social Sciences) at Sultan Qaboos University