MUSCAT // Women from Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan, many of them covered from head to toe in black abayas, approach cars and people at petrol stations, ATMs, shopping malls and even knock on the doors of private houses to beg for money. Some of them cradle babies with tears in their eyes asking for compassion from "fellow Muslims" for help, pleading that the infants are orphans whose fathers were killed during the occupation of their countries.
"We are the victims of the American injustice who made our children fatherless and we have nowhere to go but come here," begged one Afghan woman named Zulekha, standing outside a shopping mall. Observers say that many times, the begging women refuse to accept small amounts of money, which is increasing resentment among locals, raising questions about whether they are genuine and in real need. "Genuine poor people accept whatever they can get. I think they are fakes and scroungers who are looking to take advantage of our conscience. We should not give them anything since that will encourage more of them to come here," Ahmed al Raisy, a security guard at the Lulu shopping mall, said.
The beggars are part of a racket organised in the host countries by people paying the beggars' travelling expenses, some local expatriates claim. But other residents disagree. "These women have no other choice but to leave their countries since they live in appalling conditions with no one to depend on after the deaths of their husbands during conflicts in places like Iraq and Palestine," said Hussain Abdulrasool, an Iraqi expatriate in Oman. "Oman is one of the prime targets because it is easy to get a visa for Arab nationals and its people are much more tolerant than in other GCC countries."
Some expatriates, however, blame their own for the appearance of the aggressive beggars, saying that they send their wives out to beg and make them wear veils to conceal their identities and increase their income. "I know for a fact, one or two of my fellow expatriates, out of pure greed, have their own wives beg in the streets to increase their income. It is a shameful practice but it is the truth," Abdullah Khaliq, an Afghan transport supervisor, said.
Oman has a population of just over three million people, about one-quarter of wºhom are foreign workers, according to official statistics. Oman also hosts more than a million visitors a year, mainly people from Arab states and South Asian countries visiting their relatives. The sultanate relaxed visa rules three years ago to encourage tourism and help diversify the economy. "We should not blame the government for allowing more people to come to Oman. We should blame expatriates and visitors for taking advantage.
"If it goes on for too long, these women may turn the begging racket into prostitution. Then we will have a real problem," Mr al Raisy, said. Places of worship are a favourite haunt for foreign men waiting at the door after prayers with outstretched hands. One middle-aged Iraqi man, who identified himself as Qassim, pulled his shirt up to reveal two ghastly scars across his stomach and ribs outside a mosque.
"This was a bullet from Saddam's soldiers six years ago and the other wound was inflicted three months ago by the Sunni terrorists in Basra. They killed my family and wrecked my home now I am not fit for work," he told worshippers leaving a Shia mosque in Muscat. Religious leaders fear that beggars with stories of sectarian violence from their homelands will encourage tension among people of the three major Islamic sects - Ibadhi, Sunni and Shiite - practiced in the sultanate.