Meredith Adams is a geography graduate from the University of Edinburgh. In 2016, she co-founded the social enteprise MAD Challenges and is an operational team member of the 2050 Climate Group.
There is a curious stillness that lies upon the wilderness at first light. As daylight creeps determinedly forwards, the land starts to wake up and the possibilities – and often, rather rudely, worries and thoughts – of the day start to reveal themselves. Over the years, I have enjoyed this stillness across a range of countries, environments and varying degrees of waterproof tent. But the vastness and peacefulness of the desert was different.
This is the context in which I found myself in January 2018, having joined a Connecting Cultures expedition with Outward Bound Oman. Surrounded by a group of talented and ambitious young women from 14 countries, the term melting pot was apt. A melting point of cultures, languages, religions, values, worldviews with two gifts and one goal: the gifts of time and space to engage in honest dialogue; the goal to foster intercultural understanding. Understanding built upon listening, developing and moving together as a (rather eclectic looking) family across the Sharqiya Sands in northeastern Oman. A desert which I was promised held no scorpion visitors in winter, a lie leading to the most memorable teeth brushing experience of my life.
Three times each year, western and Arab young people who are complete strangers spend five days together in the Omani desert. Through discussion, challenging questions and workshops, they spend time exploring cultural differences, national identity and peace-building whilst developing their leadership skills and personal visions for social change in their home nations. No easy task, let alone in a harsh environment where sandstorms, cold nights and a heat that’s frankly disagreeable with pale Scottish skin are all thrown in for free.
This adventure starts in an unusual building: the Outward Bound Oman headquarters rises like a great ship from the sand. You could quite imagine it setting sail across the smooth dunes it is nestled within. Huge wooden gates open into a courtyard covered with fine sand, where the desert is so perfectly integrated into the heart of the building that it’s difficult to tell where, or if, there are lines between the two.
Using the desert to unleash our spirit of inquiry, the five days unfolded organically yet surprised me at every step. The ‘formal’ learning takes place under the shade of tarpaulins in English and Arabic, and importantly in the conversation that flows as you methodically walk across the sand. But learning takes place all the time – being welcomed by the Bedouin into their homestead and learning the etiquette of eating with hands, or how to make traditional Omani coffee using rose water and cardamom. Constantly faced with unfamiliar situations, the investment made by the University of the Desert in young people reveals itself as the group begins to look more deeply at each other and themselves.
Each day brought new discussion topics. We explored the meanings and assumptions we attach to people of cultures that are unfamiliar, the stereotypes of different nations, where our values come from and how these shape our actions. How our deep-rooted biases and opinions are carried with us each day and, importantly, how intercultural dialogue can help remove these and replace them with a respect and appreciation of others. Whilst I laughed as Scotland was depicted as a dark and cold place, full of Highlanders and mountains, every conversation had an authenticity to it as we each articulated our experiences and knowledge. The group moved in emotions together – whether that be sadness as we discussed the gender barriers or cultural misunderstandings we all faced in different ways, or happiness that despite geography, snow seems to be a unifying force of joy! Importantly, I felt proud as every young woman shared their goals and aspirations – to be lawyers, educators, vegan restaurant owners and everything in between. Dreams that weren’t limited by their names, their national boundaries, their backgrounds; dreams that could belong, and do belong, to young people globally.
Sharing our visions for our countries in 2025, I was struck by the similarities of our aspirations. To strengthen education and health systems, England and Algeria. Promote innovation whilst respecting the environment, Jordan and Estonia. Build an attractive country that embraces diversity, Oman and America. Visions that were bold, progressive and framed young people as the catalysts of change.
The journey does not end when you leave the sand behind. Since leaving Oman, the conversation has continued and I have seen three different Connecting Cultures alumni in Finland, Denmark and Kosovo. The latter of these has been the site of my most recent learning. Urška (Slovenia) and I embarked on a 10-day course about peace-building in post-conflict nations using the Balkans as a case study.
My web of friends may now be spread across the globe further than before, but we are closer than ever, connected through purpose and understanding.
The RSGS was able to help Meredith begin this wonderful journey through our partnership with Outward Bound Oman. Each year we advertise places for 17-25 year olds on the Connecting Cultures course; so keep your eyes peeled on our website if you would like to get involved…