An American Family in Oman

We're very happy to bring you this interview with an American expat currently based in the Middle Eastern country of Oman, an area of the world that Western media would have you believe is full of terrorists, suicide bombers, rioters and other such things...not the kind of place you'd want to go yourself and especially not one to take your family to. However, that's just what Matt Tremblay did. And, contrary to the biased news stories, it turned out to be a pretty nice place.

International Man: Tell us a little bit about yourself…

Matt Tremblay: I’m originally from northern California and grew up in the wine country north of San Francisco. I have geology degrees from the University of California and the University of Idaho. 

After college I worked a summer at a gold mine and as a mudlogger on an oil rig before officially beginning my petroleum geology career with Exxon (later ExxonMobil) in Houston. I worked there for 7 years, was a reserves consultant for a private firm for 2 years, and then I joined my current company four years ago, three of which were back in California in Bakersfield, and now I’ve been a year in Oman.

When I was studying geology I had never planned on joining the petroleum industry, but I have really enjoyed my career. Geology has taken me to a lot of places over the years, and now it has taken me overseas.

IM: Did you head out alone or did you bring any family with you to Oman?

MT: I brought the whole family when we transferred last summer. I have a wife and two boys, ages 6 and 8. It wasn’t a concern to bring the family at all as Oman is generally safe and quiet. They’re all doing real well here.

IM: What’s the weather like in Oman? Is it like the stereotype – dry, hot, and sandy?

MT: In the interior it is hot and dry, definitely sandy, but here in Muscat the temperature is lower with higher humidity. 

We’re right on the ocean, so it’s actually pretty nice, usually high 30s (Celsius) [high 90s/low 100s in Fahrenheit] in the summer and mid 20s [high 70s/low 80s] in the winter for daytime highs. In the summer most of the recreational activity happens after the sun goes down because it is so hot. But the winter here is perfect.

IM: You mentioned before that your kids are going to an American school. Is this a private school? How does the system work there?

MT: It is private, yes. The British and most of the foreign schools follow the International Baccalaureate system. The American school doesn’t, and it doesn’t strictly follow the US system either. I think it follows some guidelines, but they pretty much do what they want. My kids get a lot more art and music than they do back in the States.

There is concern that it’s perhaps a little soft academically, but it seems they try to go for a more well-rounded education. They also don’t have much of a sports program, but as my kids are still young, it’s not a problem. I’d prefer they get more of a well-rounded education earlier on.

If I had high schoolers I’d be a little bit more concerned about the academic standards, but since they just learn different things being overseas, that makes up for some of the academic deficits, if there are any. My kids like the school a lot.

IM: We haven’t covered it a lot on our site up to this point, but a lot of our readers are not the “young guys looking for adventure in some far-off country”. A lot of them are looking to expatriate for the simple reason that they see things worsening in their home country - predominantly within the US, though we have quite a few Canadians and Europeans as well.

The reason they’re looking at expatriation is because they want to protect themselves and their families. Usually families mean kids in tow. One of the most common concerns, of course, is how the kids are going to adapt. Is it fair to pick them up and move them overseas? Obviously that’s what you’ve done.

So, my question is, how are your children adapting to a new way of life? Are they having any troubles at all, or do they just love the change?

MT: I don’t think they have any issues at all. The most disruptive element is just being away from extended family. They’re at the age where they still enjoy being spoiled by the grandparents, and they do miss that, but they’re very flexible.

Certainly once school started it was like we could have been anywhere. The routines are the same and they meet kids and it doesn’t matter that the kids are from all different countries of the world that they’ve never heard of. They adapt easier than the adults, in my experience, and my friends and colleagues notice the same with their own kids. In fact, they even do a better job picking up the local languages.

My kids aren’t speaking any languages yet, but they can break out several accents. They like to pretend they’re speaking Arabic or French.

IM: Speaking of, how important is it to understand the local language? Obviously in your work life you speak English, but what about in terms of buying things at the market and so on?

MT: Getting around in Muscat and the bigger cities is no problem with English, as it is the common language. Oman is about half Omanis and about half Indians and Pakistanis, since we’re so close to those countries. They have a long history of living here and working here – though there are certainly laborer types that are here shorter term, there are also multi-generational Indian and Pakistani families that have been here.

The laborers come speaking their native languages, Urdu, Hindi, Indonesian, Tagalog, etc., and know at least some English.  The Arabs learn English in primary and secondary school, which makes it a pretty common language.

In the interior it’s a little different. I have run into Arabs who don’t speak English and it’s definitely difficult. I don’t speak much Arabic. I’ve taken a few lessons and I can say, “Hi, how are you?” and some of the basic things, and it’s always nice with strangers to start that way in Arabic. It tends to break the ice. That said, I’ve also had many experiences doing that where they just answer in English and I sort of feel silly.

IM: What do your friends and family think about you moving to Oman, even for work? Do they have an issue with it because it’s in the “dangerous” Middle East?

MT: For sure, at first. Not so much my immediate family, but extended family and some friends thought we were crazy. It is mostly because everybody goes by what they see on TV, and anything involving the Middle East is bombs and explosions and protests and such things.

I’ve traveled over here before on work for shorter periods, and when my brother spent a year in Egypt in college, I visited him for a couple weeks. So, I’ve been in this area of the world enough times to know that those sorts of things are very isolated, and it’s a safe and comfortable place to live.

My mother-in-law was probably one of the most concerned members of the family, but she visited last year and had a great time. I think her perception of things changed a lot after that. Most people close to us are fine with it now.

IM: What are the biggest day-to-day differences between the life you lived in California and the life you live now?

MT: The pace is different. The markets and things are generally the same. They’re smaller here because Muscat is still a fairly small town. It’s not like Dubai or some of the other big cities that have a lot of stores and mega-malls. It’s still pretty quiet here, so finding non-essentials is a little bit different and may even take you into some back alleys. In general, grocery stores are the same.

The pace of life is different. Getting things repaired is more challenging. Things like car insurance and the cable TV - a guy comes to your door and says you owe him 300 rials [Oman currency] for the TV each year, and you just pay him and he goes away. You don’t get a receipt and you don’t know who to call with problems. Right now I think my car insurance is expired and I don’t even know who to call or what office to go to take care of that.  We do a lot with mobile phones, SMS text messages for some of those renewal-type things. I don’t have a mailbox and we don’t get any local mail.  It is kind of relaxing, actually, not getting bills everyday.  

IM: I’m curious about television. You said you have cable. Do you get a lot of English-language stations, or is it mostly local fare? How does that work there?

MT: It’s a mix. We get 400-something channels and most are in Arabic from all over the Middle East and North Africa. There is local Omani TV, but you can Yemeni TV and other unexpected things. I found Chadian TV the other day; there were a couple of guys acting out some sort of drama in French, which was interesting. My favorite channel is the live feed from the Grand Mosque in Mecca. It’s fascinating to watch the thousands of people during Ramadan prayers.  Sometimes there are subtitles to the sermons, which is helping me learn a little about Islam.

I don’t get everything from the US - a couple dozen channels or so, which is fine. I’m not that concerned about it. They do censor movies. I think there’s only one movie theater here in Muscat, but I understand the films are pretty heavily edited, and unless you’re going to see a kiddie movie it’s really not worth going to.

IM: Interesting. How often do you head back to the States?

MT: In my first year I’ve gone back once for our annual home leave to visit family and friends. The company pays for a trip home, and then they pay for another trip somewhere else each calendar year. It’s supposed to be to London or Europe for R&R in an environment that is more familiar. Depending on the level of ‘hardship’ the company deems your assignment location is, they’ll send you on one or several trips somewhere so you don’t drive yourself crazy.

Some people do struggle with the change being in a non-western country.  People will come for a year and demand to go home. They just aren’t comfortable with the cultural differences.

IM: You’ve obviously acclimatized yourselves pretty well to the local culture and to the society.

MT: I think so. It’s one of those places where you can’t really blend in. You’ll never be a local. We don’t stand out as much in Muscat because western expats are common here, but in the smaller towns and countryside we sure do.

But we’ve really enjoyed having a home base halfway around the world. We’re trying to take the opportunity to travel, and have made four side trips so far. Many expats do go home for both Christmas and for a summer vacation. For now, at least, we’d rather try and take a trip someplace different instead - see the world - because we don’t know how long we’ll be here, and we want to expose ourselves and our kids to as much of the world as possible while we can.

IM: That makes sense. So it’s not like a five-year fixed contract? You’re just there as long as they need you to be there, and then you’ll be relocated again?

MT: Exactly, it’s indefinite. Most people do two to four years, though there are some people who have been here five and six years. We hope it’ll be a few.

IM: I don’t know if this question is completely relevant or if the company took care of it for you, but in terms of things like residency and work permits, is there anything special that you had to do to get that all taken care of, or was it done by the company?

MT: It was done by the company. It had to be approved by, I think, the Ministry of Oil and Gas – or maybe it’s the Manpower Ministry – but there is a committee that wants to know why you’re bringing an expat in, and why can’t that work be done by a local Omani.

In my particular case, I was replacing a person who had left, so the position itself was already approved. It was just, “Hey, this guy’s gone and now we’re filling it with this person.” My job is a senior technical one and there are very few Omanis available to do this kind of work, so it was an approved position beforehand.

Once the job is approved, then it was just a question of getting resident cards, driver’s license and such stuff. We have Omani public relations staff who helped with that - to take us to the ministries and show us what to do. It would be difficult to try to do on your own. Things aren’t labeled very well, and all the governmental buildings and signs are only written in Arabic, so that would be a challenge without some local help.

IM: Was it difficult to get set up with a bank account, access cash, pay bills and other financial matters? How do you manage that?

MT: It’s not difficult. I’m still paid in US dollars to a US bank account. I don’t have a choice in that matter, so I still have my home account.

In general, it is more of a cash economy here. Nobody writes checks. Debit cards are rare. You can use credit cards in some of the bigger grocery stores, restaurants and hotels, but cash is king.

Getting cash is a little bit of a challenge, when you don’t have a local bank account.  I can use my US ATM card at any of the local banks and get out Omani rials without any trouble, though there is a withdrawal limit of about 100 rials a day, which can be problematic if I need a lot of cash – like when I bought a car, for example. The company will let us cash personal checks through their bank account, which I do and just maintain some cash at home. Other people have set up local accounts in the local currency.  But for most other things, the ATM is perfect.

IM: In terms of cost of living, is it more or less expensive there than in northern California?

MT: The cost of living is more expensive. Most everything has to be imported, and the government has a lot of import fees. There’s no income tax or sales tax, so they make money by exporting commodities, like oil and dates, and on the import fees. I suspect the import fees are an incentive to produce and buy Omani products, but those are limited.  And the cost of the fee gets passed to everybody else, resulting in higher prices for goods.

Cronyism has been a bit of a problem in some of the ministries. The cost of living has gone up a lot over the last ten years, and I understand much of it’s been because of these fees. When the protests were erupting around the Arab world over the last six months, we didn’t have much action here, but the protests we did have were requests to remove some of these ministers who have been responsible for these fees. I understand they have become quite wealthy setting up businesses that take advantage of the import charges.

The Sultan obliged the protesters too. He got rid of some ministers, raised the student stipends and government salaries, and tried to do some things to combat the higher cost of living complaints. Many of the larger companies in town were also the target of small protests – banks, oil companies, service companies - and they also provided cost of living increases in some cases.

What is cheap here is imported labor. Things like gardeners, housemaids and construction workers aren’t expensive to hire. Goods are expensive but services are not.

IM: If you took your wife and the kids out for a dinner with decent wine for the adults and all that, what would you expect to pay?

MT: A nice dinner with wine would probably be at one of the hotels, because very few places serve alcohol. There it would be around double what you’d pay in the US, probably $200-300. We’ve gone out with two couples – my wife and I and another couple – and the bill has added up to about $100 per person with a bottle of wine. We have spent more than that too. You can get carried away pretty easily.

That said, there are also a lot of smaller restaurants that most people wouldn’t frequent. I can go down to the Intercontinental and go to Trader Vic’s and have a very familiar-type experience that costs a lot, or I can go to a hole-in-the-wall Indian place and have dinner for just a few rials.

In that case it can be quite affordable, and the food is good, but it’s a different atmosphere and may not feel very clean or familiar to what Westerners expect in a restaurant.

We’ve done both, but we tend to not go to the hotels much because it adds up quick. We’ve rolled the dice on a few hole-in-the-wall places, but most of the good ones come by word of mouth. And there are some good places – Indian, Thai, Arabic.

IM: Did you make any mistakes when you first came to Oman? I know you had the company helping you with a lot of local stuff, but was there any time that you thought, “Oh, I wish I could have done it this way instead of that”?

MT: I don’t think I made any big mistakes. I did need a lot more cash to get setup than I was expecting. At one point there I was maxing out the ATM every day trying to get some of these things paid for. Because you don’t have the monthly bills, most everything’s paid for a year in advance, which necessitates a lot of cash.

The biggest mistake I think you can make is not being sensitive to the differences in the culture. You can get off on the wrong foot with people pretty quickly and that can be a fatal mistake in the business setting. If you upset your fellow workers right off the bat, they’ll just freeze you out. You become ineffective and can’t get anything done. The company has had to send people home when that has happened.

Westerners tend to be a little more pushy – try to get right down to business, try to get things done, try to be efficient — the go-getter mentality. In my experience, you can get in more trouble here that way than not. It doesn’t help you get things done.   

You really have to be sensitive to people’s time and the way they’re used to doing things, and their culture and religion. For example, we just finished Ramadan a few weeks ago. Everybody was working shorter days because they were fasting, so you had to change your expectations to match.

IM: That’s interesting to hear, though not for the first time. In fact, one of our authors, Jeff Thomas, wrote an article about cultural sensitivities a little while back.

Let’s move along… If, for whatever reason, you could relocate anywhere tomorrow again, or choose a country to head to, which one would you choose?

MT: We’re enjoying being overseas, but the options within my company are limited. There are a couple of other offices here in the Middle East and a couple in South America. Within those options, I would prefer go to South America to explore there a bit and learn Spanish.

If, hypothetically, we had offices everywhere, then probably Southeast Asia would be the place to go - Indonesia, Malaysia, or Thailand. I’ve only been in the region once, but I’ve been told it is a great overseas experience to live there.

IM: So you like it warm, obviously.

MT: [laughs] Well, we’ve gotten used to it. After Houston and then Bakersfield and now here, I’m not sure I could do cold countries, but I’d give it a try. There are places in Russia which are okay for families. Someone just got back from the Ukraine and thought that was pretty nice.

But, yes, ‘warm’ seems to be the trend.

IM: Would you recommend the path that you took, in terms of going overseas but doing it within the structure of a company that is already established - as a way for individuals to kind of “pseudo-expatriate” and get a feeling for what it’s like to live overseas?

MT: Yeah, I recommend it. If we get anything out of this experience, I want my kids to be comfortable with the rest of the world, and not just think that what they see on TV and what happens down at the strip mall with their buddies is the whole world. The experience should literally open up the world for them as they get older.

I think any way for people to experience different cultures and to see the rest of the world is valuable for themselves and their families. Whether that is simply traveling overseas, or transferring and moving off entirely, it’s a great way to become more comfortable with and understand the rest of the world.

As we all become more intertwined, I think it is more important for our kids to be comfortable with other cultures, and I think ultimately they’ll be more successful from the experience – whether they’re working in the US with people from other countries and cultures, or they end up going to other places themselves. It is going to increase their options, flexibility, and provide them more opportunities.

Just as importantly, for anyone, world experience can change perceptions. The stuff they show on TV is so narrowly focused and biased in some cases. Getting out into the world for yourself will change, or perhaps reinforce, those perceptions.  But either way, you’ll be better off.

IM: Thanks very much, Matt. It’s been a pleasure.

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