Other Oman Conferences
The following is an edited transcript of the proceedings of a symposium recognizing the twenty-fifth anniversary of the accession of H.M. Qaboos bin Said, the Sultan of Oman. This was the ninth in a series of Capitol Hill symposiums conducted by the Middle East Policy Council since 1992. It was held in the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, DC, on 12 October 1995.
His Majesty visited Washington in 1983. Vice President Bush twice visited Oman, in 1983 and in 1986. And Vice President Gore traveled to Oman earlier this year. We're proud to count Oman and His Majesty as close partners and friends. The United States and Oman have a long tradition of commercial relations, dating back to the early days of American independence. Others will no doubt talk to you in more detail about these contacts: the early American traders calling it Zanzibar, the famous voyage of the Sultana to the United States, our early trade negotiations in the 1830s.
But our current political relationship can be traced to His Majesty Sultan Qaboos's accession to the throne in 1970. One of his first priorities was to end his country's earlier isolation. He pursued a course of action designed to increase Oman's regional and international profile and to expand Oman's relations with its neighbors and the rest of the world.
Our relationship began to evolve in the 1970s. In 1972, the first U.S. ambassador was accredited to Oman. Several events promoted the growth of the strong and cooperative relationship between our two countries as we sought to promote our mutual interests in security, prosperity and stability in the region. The rise of Soviet influence in Yemen, and later in Afghanistan; the Iranian Revolution; U.S. initiatives for peace in the Middle East; Oman's geographic location on the Strait of Hormuz - all combined to establish the foundation of a close relationship between our two countries.
The traditional American route to the Arab world has been to cross the Atlantic and through the Gates of Hercules, across the Mediterranean to the Levant or the Holy Land. It is only in recent times, with the emerging importance of the Gulf, that our strategic planners have begun looking at approaching the Arab world from the south, going around the Cape of Good Hope or coming from the Pacific. On this axis, Oman's strategic location, wrapped around the southeast corner of the Arabian Peninsula, guarding the southern approaches to the Strait of Hormuz, across from Iran, becomes self-evident and has made it an essential partner in preserving the freedom of navigation in the Gulf and a key participant in regional strategic planning.
Following the fall of the shah and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Oman was the first country in the Gulf with which we negotiated a security cooperation agreement. This accord, signed in 1980, was renewed and expanded in 1990 and remains in effect today. During the Gulf War, Oman contributed forces to liberating Kuwait, and aircraft of the international coalition operated from Omani airfields. Oman continues to work closely with the United States in providing crucial logistics and pre-positioning support, and in participating in joint exercises in the region.
Oman is a strong supporter of collective security within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Oman has been a member of the GCC since its formation in 1981. It has both contributed to and benefited from the GCC efforts to maintain regional security. In September 1994, Oman joined with the five other GCC members to announce their decision to no longer enforce the secondary and tertiary aspects of the Arab boycott against Israel. Oman will take the chair of the GCC in December.
At the same time, in keeping with Oman's tradition as a seafaring nation, Sultan Qaboos has followed an independent foreign policy. One example has been Oman's unhesitating support for peace efforts in the Middle East. Resisting pressure to isolate Egypt in the wake of its peace treaty with Israel in 1979, Oman maintained its ties with Cairo. In April 1994, Oman was the first Gulf state to host an Israeli delegation to a multilateral peace-process meeting. Then, in December last year, Oman welcomed Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on his first visit to a Gulf state. The two countries' foreign ministers have met several times. And at the beginning of this month, Oman and Israel announced an agreement to open trade representation in each other's countries.
Oman has been an active participant in all aspects of the multilateral peace-process working groups. It has taken the lead in promoting the establishment of a regional desalination research center in Muscat under the auspices of the Multilateral Working Group on Water Resources, working with regional states, including Israel, as part of the peace process.
Sultan Qaboos has publicly stood with the United States in condemning terrorism and violence. He has spoken out against those who would use terror or manipulate Islam in support of violent opposition to the peace process or to stable governments. Following an unsuccessful attempt in 1994 to destabilize the Sultan's government by plotters allegedly under the influence of Islamist extremists, His Majesty Sultan Qaboos publicly condemned such extremism.
As a member of the U.N. Security Council since January 1994, Oman has worked closely and successfully with the United States on a number of issues. These have included containing the effects of the Yemen civil war and maintaining the Iraqi sanctions regime until Iraq complies with all its obligations to the Security Council. We both share a deep humanitarian concern for the hardship of the Iraqi people. Our two countries worked closely together to draft Resolution 986, which allows for the provision of humanitarian aid to the Iraqi people through controlled sale of Iraqi oil, while maintaining the integrity of the sanctions regime. In its two years on the Security Council, Oman has been a responsible and contributing member to that important body.
The politics of economics is an important factor in our relationship with Oman. On a bilateral level, our commercial relationship dates back over two centuries. In 1908, we were Oman's second largest export market. Then California began producing dates, and the trade tapered off. Today, we're coming back. The United States is now Oman's fourth-largest trading partner. U.S. companies are working in Oman across various sectors, from oil and natural gas to manufacturing. We will continue to work with Oman to share knowledge and experience, to provide training and job opportunities for young Omanis and to expand our economic cooperation. We recognize and support Oman's own economic priorities, aimed at diversifying its economy and developing the interior of the country.
On a multilateral level, the upcoming Amman summit at the end of October will enhance economic cooperation in the region. Following on last year's Casablanca summit, the Amman summit represents an opportunity to expand business and trade among the countries of the region and to take advantage of the new opportunities opened by peace agreements. We have encouraged Oman to take advantage of this summit as an opportunity to promote Omani projects. And we're delighted that a large delegation, composed of both businessmen and members of the government, is planning to attend.
Domestically, Sultan Qaboos has taken important political and social steps to ensure Oman's place as a stable, modern country. He has been a leader on the Arabian Peninsula in promoting the education and political empowerment of women and in articulating a vision of gradually expanding popular participation in government. In 1991, the Sultan established a 59-seat Consultative Council, or Majlis Ash-Shura, which replaced an older advisory body. Council members are selected from lists of nominees proposed by each of the nation's regions, become educated and immersed in the nation's issues, question government ministers, and recommend changes or new laws on economic and social policy.
In 1994, Oman became the first Gulf Cooperation Council state to welcome women as members of the Consultative Council, and there are now two women members. Oman is working to improve worker rights. Oman joined the ILO (In-ternational Labor Organization) in 1994, and the government is drafting a new labor law to address workers' rights.
The U.S.-Oman relationship will continue to be based on mutual respect and our common concern for regional security and stability. Last week, we spent a full morning with Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Yusef Bin Alawi, reviewing the conditions in the region and all aspects of our bilateral relations, which are solid and healthy. We will continue to cooperate on economic, political and security issues and to seek new and creative ways to enhance our broad bilateral relationship. We will also work together on multilateral issues, including the peace process, Iraq sanctions and expanding economic opportunities in the region.
Sultan Qaboos has played an important role in the development of our strong cooperative relationship through his commitment to pursuing an active role in international affairs. We appreciate the importance of this relationship and of His Majesty's interest and guidance. And we look forward to another 25 years of close cooperation under His Majesty's leadership.
In the years between 1970 and 1994, the foreign policy of the sultanate of Oman has evolved through four major phases: the periods of consolidation, transition, maturity and progress. Much like comparable countries in the developing world, this evolving foreign policy was determined by the interactions between domestic and external factors.
Although the country faced severe internal political unrest in the first period (1970-75), especially in the south, Muscat had a capable prime minister who acted quickly to end the country's isolation from the rest of the world. Compared with its neighbors, the sultanate was not developed and certainly qualified for the label "poor." Consequently, it needed urgent assistance from other Arab and non-Arab Gulf states to face the burden of the Dhufar War and, upon a successful conclusion of that conflict, massive economic assistance to improve the population's standard of living. Still, the resignation of Tariq bin Said, the country's first prime minister, left a political vacuum. Sultan Qaboos filled Tariq's cabinet portfolios (prime and foreign minister) but, because of his concentration on the southern crisis, could not devote the attention that relations with fellow conservative Arab Gulf monarchies required.
The second period (1976-80) witnessed progress on several fronts. Oman slowly freed itself from intrinsic internal problems by devoting much-needed financial attention to domestic needs. Simultaneously, it actively sought closer ties with neighboring countries and entered a crucial transition period within the region. To be sure, the Iran-Iraq War galvanized collective cooperation efforts, even if the six conservative Arab Gulf governments could not reach agreement on how best to respond to this putative threat. Coordination of whatever security measures was considered were placed on the back burner. Undeterred by this level of indecision, Oman maintained solid relations with both Iran and Iraq, on the one hand, and the conservative monarchies on the other.
The third phase (1981-85) proved to be sobering for all of the countries on and near the Arabian Peninsula. In addition to the raging war between the two largest states, internal tensions surfaced, necessitating urgent actions. Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates finally agreed to unite in a regional alliance by creating the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). This was a significant accomplishment because GCC leaders were always reluctant to consider risky security measures. Muscat participated in all regional security activities but succeeded in remaining neutral during the Iran-Iraq War, pursued its special security relationships with several Western countries, and supported the Camp David accords as the framework to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The fourth phase (1985-94) allowed Qaboos to emerge as a unique political figure in the region. On matters of security, Qaboos earned his fellow rulers' utmost confidence and, at the appropriate time, saw his proposals germinate. He helped defuse the Bahrain-Qatar disputes over the Hawar Islands and the Fasht al-Dibal reef in 1986, and diligently worked to bring the Iraqi and Iranian leaders around the negotiating table in 1987. Qaboos offered to host a meeting between Saddam Hussein and Hojatolislam Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in Muscat but that was not to be. In the event, Ayatollah Khomeini finally accepted the U.N.-brokered cease-fire in 1988, but Muscat was keenly aware of how that war stopped. From 1988 to 1990, the Omani ruler attempted to heal the wounds of the festering war, cognizant that a final settlement had not been reached between the two belligerent parties. He also sought to woo Egypt back into the Arab fold in the aftermath of the Egyptian-Israeli peace accords. Not only did Oman not attend the ill-fated 1978 Baghdad Rejectionist summit, but Qaboos also cautioned on its devastating long-term impact for the entire Arab world. Unfortunately, and perhaps because of the sultanate's truncated contacts within the Arab world throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Qaboos's words fell on deaf ears. History proved him right, however, when Iraq invaded Kuwait in mid-1990.
Even before the war for Kuwait, Qaboos correctly surmised that dramatic shifting currents were unfolding on the international scene with unknown consequences for all. At the 1989 GCC Muscat summit, he issued a bold "Declaration" that called for enhancing political participation, strengthening the Oman-U.S.-U.K. axis while improving Muscat's ties with both Tehran and Baghdad. More important, he moved expeditiously to improve relations with his neighbors, signed border agreements with Saudi Arabia and Yemen that, in effect, crowned a decade-long effort to improve the sultanate's foreign relations. Oman diligently pursued an independent foreign policy that stood in stark contrast to the regional fare.
Although hosting the talks meant that the sultanate was exploring alternative technical avenues—to solve its critical water problems—it indicated some cautious readiness to modify policy towards Israel. After such a long conflict as that between Israel and Arab states, even small events indicating a possible thaw were important. Qaboos recognized that no Arab leader could champion the Palestinian cause more than Yasser Arafat. He further reasoned that all ought to consider individual long-term interests, as the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization did in late 1993. Since Arafat reached a peace accord with Israel, an Israeli attendance at a conference in a Gulf state was no longer unique. After all, Qaboos welcomed Arafat in Muscat after the Oslo talks, when the entire Arab world shunned the Palestinian, and was not about to allow anyone to dictate what policies the sultanate ought to pursue. In the event, the Israeli contacts proved useful to both sides. They further thawed existing tensions and, as Oman hoped to join the U.N. Security Council as one of the ten non-permanent members, the Israeli support was appreciated. This was all part of the normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab world.
Beilin returned to Muscat in early November 1994 ostensibly to follow-up on the water conference. In fact, the deputy foreign minister held discussions with Yusuf bin Alawi and other Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials on a far more important issue. The two men and their delegations put the final touches on Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's visit to the sultanate on December 27, 1994. Rabin stayed less than 24 hours, but this was the first public visit by an Israeli leader to an Arab Gulf state. Not surprisingly, it drew the ire of several opponents, including underground movements throughout the Gulf region. In the event, the watershed visit broke a deadlock, further illustrating Sultan Qaboos's appetite for independent foreign-policy measures.
The discussions with Israeli officials indicated that Oman was a step ahead of the GCC's general policy on Israel. By late 1995, the GCC states had endorsed the Israeli-Palestine peace process but made no collective move towards any sort of relations with Israel. Neither have other individual GCC states given indications of moving in that direction. All agreed that the matter was to be decided by the League of Arab States, especially as such decision related to the Arab boycott, in place since the 1950s. While Israel claimed that an agreement was to be signed on gas supplies with Qatar, little progress was made on that front, and Doha formally denied assertions to the contrary. GCC Secretary-General Shaykh Fahim Al-Qassimi was even more categorical when he declared that the Arab Gulf monarchies "should not rush for ending the boycott because no progress has been made on other peace tracks." Muscat was in full agreement with other GCC countries on this subject, its limited diplomatic initiatives notwithstanding but, once again, reserved the right to disagree when Omani interests were at stake. The two parties agreed to open Omani airspace to Israeli civilian air traffic in March 1995 and, according to several press reports, were preparing for the establishment of interest sections as a step towards the establishment of formal and full diplomatic relations as soon as concrete initiatives were introduced in the peace process.
What those moves indicated was that Sultan Qaboos's government was ready to make cautious moves on its own, in the direction of a thaw in relations with Israel, independently of its GCC partners. For the time being it may well stop far short of the rapprochement which Israel has sought. Still, Oman was ready to go a little further than other Arab Gulf states, and its readiness to go that little bit further might be attributed by some to the sultanate's close links with the West. That could well be the view of Iran, Oman's neighbor across the Strait of Hormuz, but the explanation may also be found elsewhere. For years, Oman has consistently favored reconciliation and resolution of disputes and has been ready to act independently on this matter.
Equally bold in its long-term implications was Muscat's decision to help settle the 1994 Yemen civil war, which pitted rival northern and southern forces against each other. The Sultan hosted both President Ali Abdallah Salih and Vice-President Ali Salim Al-Baydh on several occasions to mediate if possible and to settle existing political differences if feasible. The Yemeni leadership failed to compromise, and that, unfortunately, ended in a bloody war that further scarred the Yemeni population. Alone on the Arabian Peninsula, the sultanate of Oman refused to distance itself from Sanaa, arguing that the Republic of Yemen was a legitimate entity and that internal disputes did not warrant its break-up. Simultaneously, Muscat extended asylum to fleeing southern leaders, which, ironically, was made possible by Oman's steadfastness on Yemeni unity.
Much has been written about Omani motives in taking these initiatives on Ye-men. Although motives for behaving in a particular way may have had strategic implications—that Oman needed Yemen's strategic depth on its southern border—Muscat adopted pragmatic policies towards Sanaa. Its task was to keep its long-term interests—to maintain close and friendly ties with Yemen—intact and, if possible, prevent other regional powers from using internal Yemeni upheavals to further destabilize the Arabian Peninsula. By holding both parties responsible for all of their actions, Muscat earned unparalleled credibility in Sanaa, where a new understanding emerged on how critical Oman had become for long-term Yemeni interests.
London, Paris and Washington, among others, have attached great importance to Oman as an ally because of its position on the southern shore of the Strait of Hormuz. That vital waterway was only 30 miles wide where the Musandam Peninsula jutted out into the Persian Gulf. Although relations between Oman and Western powers have been cemented by a large degree of military cooperation, including assistance in suppression of two rebellions against the Sultan's rule, in the 1950s and the 1970s, key allies have helped to develop and expand the Sultan's Armed Forces over several decades. More recently, since 1980, cooperation between Oman and the United States has become very important. His Arab credentials aside, Sultan Qaboos looked West for long-term security, as Oman became the main balancer on the Arabian Peninsula. Muscat was increasingly called upon to limit regional tensions, check expansionist tendencies by several regional states, act as a go-between for Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and protect the United Arab Emirates.
Muscat was able to achieve these objectives because it created the circumstances to act in a decisive way. The sultanate defined its borders, adopted pragmatic policies and entered into alliances without neglecting its regional responsibilities. In other words, Oman forged a role for itself, replacing a fledgling state with a secure one. Even if Omani foreign policy was not fully articulated from the outset of Sultan Qaboos's rule, the "Idea of Oman," as a key regional power, was well understood. There was a realization that the country must survive and forge a stable life for its citizens, an awareness that the government ought to regain full control over its destiny as soon as possible, and a desire to adopt independent measures to restore its standing on the Arabian Peninsula.
I would suggest that there is no Gulf country, and perhaps no country beyond the Gulf either, including the United States, which has so consistently pursued a policy of Gulf security and strategic self-interest as Oman has done. Oman has always been an advocate of self-defense in a region where, despite rhetoric to the contrary and enormous defense budgets, few countries maintain ground forces adequate to deter even relatively small threats. Oman has maintained a small (by world standards) but impressive (by Gulf standards) army, well-trained and disciplined. Beyond its own self-defense, Oman has recognized that the small states of the Gulf must, as Benjamin Franklin remarked, "hang together or assuredly [they] will all hang separately." Oman has been not only one of the strongest supporters of the Gulf Cooperation Council, but a vigorous advocate for a real joint GCC military force. At the same time, Oman has also recognized the very real if somewhat embarrassing truth that when push comes to shove, none of the Gulf states has the population to defend its territory, either by itself or in cooperation with its neighbors, against a major regional power like Iran or Iraq. Thus during a period when it was utterly anathema to support any public U.S. role in the Gulf, Oman was the only GCC state officially to grant the United States access to military facilities on its territory.
So far, it may seem as if I am saying that Oman's security policy has been wise because it usually coincided with that of the United States. That is not my intention at all. Oman's policies have been characterized by a realism and pragmatism which recognized real threats and responded to them in the only way possible, by seeking to deter those threats through cooperation both regionally and internationally. But Oman has also recognized that it is very much a part of the region and will have to go on living there long after present quarrels are settled. It has therefore also sought to maintain decent relations with the regional powers of Iran and Iraq.
Although today, of course, Oman remains alienated from Iraq in the wake of the Gulf War and Iraq's continuing defiance, it maintains correct, if not exactly warm, relations with Iran. Omanis have a long history of links across the Strait of Hormuz, both commercial and familial, and because Iran controls the other side of the strait, peaceful transit of the strait depends in part at least on maintaining civil (if not cordial) relations with Iran. Thus Oman is not a practitioner of "dual containment" in the U.S. sense: it cannot afford the luxury. Like several of the other Gulf states, it must talk to its neighbor even if it is wary of that neighbor's intentions. I would argue that this, too, represents a realistic, pragmatic approach to the security situation, perhaps one more suited to the present realities than "dual containment."
Oman's security policies over the past decades have been both consistent and straightforward, two words which do not come to mind in discussing the security policies of some of its neighbors to the north. Its critics might say that it has consistently done the will of foreign powers, first Britain, then the United States. But while its own security interests have frequently coincided with those of the West, they have not been identical the attitude towards Iran is one example and many of its staunchest critics have now followed its example. Kuwait, once a critic of Oman's facilities agreement of 1981 with the United States, today hosts U.S. air, ground and naval forces in far greater numbers than Oman ever envisioned.
It is worth briefly reviewing Oman's security policies over the past couple of decades. When Sultan Qaboos ascended the throne in July of 1970, Oman in effect had little external policy of any sort. Britain handled its security affairs and its ruler pursued an isolated, and isolationist, existence. It had faced internal revolts from the Imam Ghalib in the 1950s and in Dhofar from the 1960s onward, challenges it was ill-equipped to meet without outside assistance. This isolationism was ironic given Oman's history: far more than any other states in the Gulf region, it has historically been involved beyond its shores, around the margins of the Indian Ocean from Zanzibar to India. While no one would advocate a return to Oman's past imperial role, its period of isolation from the outside world was clearly an anomaly.
Sultan Qaboos's accession in 1970 preceded by a short time the British withdrawal from "east of Suez" in 1971, though of course Britain maintained and maintains close links with Oman.
The Sultan inherited a difficult insurgency in Dhofar, so that internal security preoccupied Oman for the first part of the 1970s. At that time the Sultan of Oman's Armed Forces (SOAF: today called in English the Royal Armed Forces of Oman) were British-officered. The Dhofar war also involved external regional assistance from Iran and Jordan. Thus the role of cooperation with external powers in the security field was a familiar one to the Omanis well before the Gulf as a whole became a focus of concern. The success of the campaign in Dhofar also underscored the fact that effective military forces can sometimes resolve problems, provided (as in the Dhofar case) that the end to the insurgency is accompanied by reformist policies addressing the causes that provoked it in the first place.
After the end of the Dhofar revolt in the mid-1970s, Oman was able to concentrate on the policies of development and modernization. In 1979, however, the Iranian revolution brought down the shah, who had always portrayed himself, and persuaded many in the West to see him as, the real guarantor of the security of the Gulf. Iran's annexation of Abu Musa and the Tunbs in 1971 had been defended as a means of guaranteeing that "terrorists" could never control the Strait of Hormuz. (See Caldwell article in this issue.) But in 1979 the West, and the conservative Gulf states, suddenly found Iran controlling one side of the strait and showing the international assertiveness of a new revolutionary regime and holding the U.S. embassy staff hostage.
Oman's small, fledgling navy soon became a key element in patrolling the Strait of Hormuz, and its position along the strait made it a strategically important location for the West in general and the United States in particular in their attempts to respond to the changed situation following the fall of the shah.
Oman had to perform a bit more of a balancing act than some of the other Gulf states during the Iran-Iraq War which broke out in 1980. Initially it showed the same sympathy and support for Iraq that characterized the other Gulf states. In 1980 there were some delicate moments when Omani naval elements faced off with the much more powerful Iranian navy, but these were defused. Oman recognized that, given its position, it could not be openly hostile to Iran; yet at the same time, it was essential to make clear to the Iranians that Oman took seriously its role as defender of the strait.
In this context, Oman pursued a sort of dual-track policy towards Gulf security: as a strong advocate of closer defense cooperation with the other conservative Gulf states and as a willing ally in providing the United States with facilities needed to maintain its over-the-horizon presence.
I happened to have the good fortune to be able to attend the first summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council in Abu Dhabi in 1981. At the time, the newly formed GCC was being portrayed as primarily a political and economic body. Fearful of the response of Iraq as well as of Iran, most GCC states went out of their way to deny that there was any defense component to the new grouping. Though it was well-known that an Omani working paper had been circulated calling for close cooperation in several areas of defense, the GCC as a body simply denied that any such matters were under discussion. When, at the end of the summit, the heads of state made their public addresses, Sultan Qaboos broke with the anodyne rhetoric preferred by the other leaders and openly spoke of the importance of defense and security, without which there could be no progress in other fields.
That same year, 1981, marked the signing of the access agreement with the United States. It was an era when the United States was creating the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force, which became the U.S. Central Command and was seeking forward basing to facilitate emergency intervention in the Gulf region. But the nervous states of the Gulf were determined, for the most part, to keep the American presence over the horizon. Oman was the exception. The July 1981 military-access agreement gave the United States access to base facilities in Oman in return for U.S. aid to build up the facilities. Masira Island could provide a future staging base for deployment of forces to the Gulf, while a number of Omani air bases provided maintenance and staging facilities, ammunition stores and other elements of pre-positioning. U.S. and British maritime reconnaissance could also operate out of Omani bases to patrol the Gulf in times of crisis.
At the time, Oman was very much the odd man out among the Gulf states, though Bahrain maintained its role as headquarters of the small U.S. Middle East Force and of course Saudi Arabia quietly cooperated with the United States in many areas, including pre-positioning and early warning. Of the six GCC states, however, only Oman had a facilities agreement with the United States prior to the invasion of Kuwait. And, only Oman of the Gulf states regularly carried out joint exercises with the United States. Ironically, these relationships infuriated the Kuwaitis, who were then the most determined to keep all major powers over the horizon.
The United States used those Omani facilities on several occasions during the Iran-Iraq War, particularly for reconnaissance and maritime patrol missions during confrontations including the "tanker war" and Operation Earnest Will (the Kuwaiti reflagging and convoying operation in 1987-88) and during the 1988 confrontation between the United States and the Iranian navy. It also provided support for Desert Shield (and contributed a unit to the Joint Forces Command in Desert Storm) and for the Vigilant Warrior buildup to deter a possible threat to Kuwait in October of 1994.
Oman was once very much alone in its willingness to cooperate with the United States. Today the United States has defense agreements with five of the six GCC states, and the one holdout, Saudi Arabia, has extensive informal defense cooperation with the United States and provides the base for the U.S. air operations supporting Operation Southern Watch over Iraq. The other GCC states, in the wake of the invasion of Kuwait, are pursuing security policies very much like those Oman pursued throughout the 1980s.
In areas of self-defense and regional cooperation, the Omanis are still rather ahead of their neighbors. They do not and cannot spend as much as the richer GCC states for frontline aircraft and armor, so the Royal Omani Army remains very much an infantry force, though increasing its armor capabilities in recent years. More to the point, Oman has a professional ground force which is missing in most other GCC states. Of course it has a much larger territory to defend than small emirates such as Kuwait or Bahrain or Qatar, but Saudi Arabia has a larger territory still and maintains comparatively few armed forces.
The Omani attitude has been quite different. The fact that the Sultan is a Sandhurst graduate and that Oman was the scene of internal military operations from the 1950s through the mid-1970s with only occasional breaks may have much to do with that attitude. Though poorly equipped by comparison with some of its richer, prestige-procurement neighbors, the Omani army has always concentrated on maintaining a well-trained, disciplined, effective defense force, with an army now approaching some 25,000 men.
Oman is by no means a militarized state, but it is willing to maintain a respectably-sized military establishment. Using U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) figures for 1993, ACDA estimated that Oman's ratio of soldiers per 100,000 people was some 21.3, the sixth ranking in the world for that year. This compares to only 9.8 for Saudi Arabia and about 10 for Kuwait before the invasion.
Being unafraid to maintain a serious armed force for the defense of its own extensive borders and a competent small navy for the defense of the strait and its access routes, Oman is naturally not about to shrink from regional cooperation. From the beginning of the GCC it has been a strong advocate for a much larger joint GCC deterrent force than that which exists today, the skeletal Peninsula Shield. Since Desert Storm Oman has advocated a joint GCC force of at least 100,000 men 10 times the size of Peninsula Shield to deter future adventures like the invasion of Kuwait. An eventual force that is even larger, perhaps 200,000 men, has been mentioned. Despite the promises heard so frequently during the Gulf War, the other GCC states are not politically ready for such a large, standing joint force. For one thing, it would initially consist primarily of Saudi and Omani armed forces simply because the standing armies of the region are so small. Oman's proposals are invariably tabled for future discussion by the GCC, but Oman continues to recognize the need for a larger regional deterrent.
There is more to deterring aggression by one's neighbors than merely "dialing 911" for the United States to come to the rescue. Yet at the same time, no regional deterrent can provide absolute protection against large armed forces the size of Iran's or Iraq's should trouble arise. A combination of cooperation with the United States and the West on the one hand and an effective local defense force on the other, plus cooperation regionally in the GCC, is Oman's formula: and the one which is likeliest to prove cost effective both in the region and abroad.
Today, five years after Desert Shield and almost five years after Desert Storm, the proper approach to Gulf security remains an issue in the region as well as in the West. Oman remains a strong advocate of building up one's own deterrence, cooperating with neighbors to strengthen the whole and relying on external protection when necessary. Once Oman's was a voice crying in the wilderness: today its neighbors often seem to echo some of its opinions. It has been a good friend and military ally of the United States in protection of access to the Gulf through the Strait of Hormuz, though it does not always sign on to every aspect of U.S. policy, particularly the current policy of absolute isolation of Iran. We should not be surprised if the future proves that Oman, once again, has been right.
Indeed, I think that today in Saudi Arabia, as is Oman, there is a greater willingness on the part of people to speak out, to express their views. There's a greater interest in popular participation in the government, and in each case the government is responding because it knows it has to be responsive to the aspirations of its people.
This does not mean that there needs to be a Western-style democracy established. That would be, in my view, a great mistake. But to develop and utilize the mechanisms of their culture and tradition, such as the Majlis Ash-Shura, is a way that these governments have of responding to the changing aspirations of their people. And they need to do so to maintain their stability. We feel that in both cases, as in other cases in the Gulf, that type of evolution is taking place.
Dr. Dunn: I would just say that clearly the United States has an interest in promoting human rights, and that we should certainly encourage our friends in the Gulf to maintain international norms of human rights. I think we must never forget, however, that our basic interest in the Gulf is fundamentally access to oil and maintaining stability, and that realistically we are not about to undermine the existing regimes when they are friendly to the West. That doesn't mean we should encourage them in suppression of human rights in any way. And these are areas where we have to provide a certain amount of constructive engagement. These are paternalistic states, and in many cases, they do not conform to Western models of democracy. This is a problem that is not limited just to the connservative states of the Gulf. It is a problem that is true almost across the board in the Middle East.
Q: In light of the difficulties that the Rabin government has
today and the possibility that he might lose the next election, how do you assess
the decision of the Omani government to start trade relations with Israel?
Secretary Pelletreau: I think the decision of the Omani government is a realistic recognition of the expanding pattern of peace in the Middle East. Following the Oslo II accord, which is probably the most meticulously and arduously negotiated accord of the several agreements that exist between the Palestinians and Israelis, I think the direction of events in the Middle East is unmistakable. And Oman, in its own independent yet cautious way, has not been the first nor does it want to be the last in recognizing these trends and in participating in a way that advances and protects its own interests.
Q: Among the interfaith community, there has been great
concern over the past year about the prisoners that have been detained. And in
some reports we see that there have been some human-rights abuses. I speak
most specifically to the congressional Joint Committee Report that was sent to
both the House and the Senate on this particular issue. What is the U.S.
government's position on the prisoners? I understand that they are some of the
leading citizens of the Omani government.
Secretary Pelletreau: I would refer you to our Annual Human Rights Report on Oman, which is one of the series of reports that the Congress has required the administration to produce on human-rights activities all over the world. You will see, as you read that report, that Oman's record is mixed. There have been detentions and trial procedures that we have raised questions about with the Omani government. At the same time, we recognize that Oman has taken a number of steps to improve its human-rights performance. I mentioned in my remarks its adherence to the ILO, the efforts that are underway to improve workers' rights, and certainly the efforts to improve popular participation, including among women.
Q: I've been asked to write an op-ed piece on Oman
for The New York Times next month. I've been very much
impressed with the wonderful reports on the foreign policy of Oman and Sultan
Qaboo. What if, God forbid, Sultan Qaboos passes away tomorrow? What are
the structures in place to carry on the foreign policy?
Dr. Kechichian: Succession is a major problem throughout the Gulf countries, and Oman is no exception to this, of course. There is no designated heir apparent in Oman should an unforeseen circumstance arise. However, Qaboos is not Oman and Oman is not Qaboos. Oman is a real country. It has a history that goes back a thousand years. In the book that I have completed on it, I compared it to the French Capetian era. There are certain mechanisms in place, should the situation arise, whereby the senior members of the family will get together and designate a successor to Sultan Qaboos.
Yet, it seems to me that we have to go beyond that. Perhaps this question would have been very important 10, 15, 25 years ago. Today, it is less important, because there are certain institutions in the country. There is a government that is functioning. There is an elite system that's functioning. There is an economic system that's functioning.
And, more important, there is relative harmony. The ruling family in Oman is much smaller than in Saudi Arabia, for example. You don't have 3,000 princes jockeying for power. You don't have the family squabbles that exist, for example, in the UAE. This is a rather homogeneous, small family that has successfully conducted its affairs.
Then I went there in 1978, and I was not for a moment disappointed. I go back time after time and think things can't get much better, but then there's more beautiful art and architecture; the people seem to grow more sophisticated; the Sultan seems to grow wiser. One hesitates to be that positive about any country. But as I got to know the country better, the romance never faded. In fact, a new fascination overtook me, of Oman as a model of development that I think can hardly be paralleled anywhere in the world.
In my first trips and I've been privileged to go there about eight times now since 1978, including last winter I tried to see why Oman was doing so well when so many of the countries I was covering were in chaos, anarchy, civil war and devastation. I dug out some of my old columns and looked for some of those reasons.
Here's one from 1983. The Development Council head was telling me that people in Oman learn from their neighbors not to go after the "white-elephant project." So, the first thing they did was to rebuild a reasonable infrastructure. I wrote:
|In effect, the revenue from the 365,000 barrels a day of oil that Oman produces was never squandered in big plants and industries. Instead, it was wisely invested in traditional industries like fisheries and agriculture. In contrast to many countries that are now using all of their earnings just to pay the interest on gigantic debts, Oman has, every year, taken 15 percent of its oil revenues and put that money into a state reserve fund. It is to be touched only in cases of emergency. Many of the secrets to Oman's extraordinary success are really very simple. There is the ethic about spending more than you earn, for instance. This is complemented by Oman's investment in what it produces best, not in what gives it the most immediate ego gratification.|
Then, in those early years, when I went to Oman, I tried to study the very special form of Islam, the Ibadi religion. The under secretary of the Development Ministry, Hassan Abdullah, said to me, as we discussed Ibadi Islam, "You know what the Prophet Muhammed said? He who will not keep pace with the times shall die.'" I remember saying at the time, "That sounds a little different to me than some of the other forms of Islam." And indeed it was.
Another leader in the government said to me: "Instead of translating the Arabic word ijtihad as heresy,' in Oman, we like to translate it as room for change or innovation.'"
I would suggest to you that that is a very deep reason for Oman's development.
As I covered the Middle East and as I went back to Oman, as well as to the other countries, I asked, "Who is this leader, who is the Sultan in charge of this unique country?" I began to study the Sultan and from afar. Of course, in those early days, after he had overthrown his father in 1970 and embarked upon this incredible voyage of development, he would go out as a kind of modern Harun al-Rashid into the city by himself, to check out the hospitals and the schools. If something wasn't right, he would see that it was taken care of. Later, we talked about this and laughed about it. He said later, "Well, Ms. Geyer, I don't have much time to do that anymore."
The Omanis that I have talked to in the government were always watching everything, inspecting buildings even on their days off. On their religious holidays, they were watching to see that everything was done right.
His Majesty, the Sultan, had a unique idea about "Omanization." Essentially, he wanted Omanis to work in all of the positions in the country but not until they were ready for them. I had seen so many developing countries where the level of the country came down and down and down, not because of lack of talent, but for lack of education and preparation. I think that is one of the things that His Majesty has done which is quite admirable and should be watched by other countries.
I have had the great honor of interviewing His Majesty a number of times. I think the last one was number five, last winter in Oman. I have found him always to be the most charming of men. Our interviews are, of course, very formal, and yet, within the formality, he would laugh a great deal. I have watched him grow older and yet wiser. Most of the leaders I cover grow older and less wise. He was always open. I am very respectful, of course. But I could ask him almost anything.
I remember one year I was there for the national day. They are very special, with parades, little boys running, little girls dancing. There are all kinds of wonderful sets, sort of out of the "Arabian Nights," in a large stadium. One year I had an interview with him a couple of days after one of these celebrations, and he said, "Ms. Geyer, what did you think of the national day? Did you see the little girls dancing?" (The women in Oman generally do not cover their heads. They're very open and wear beautiful colors.) Because I knew he doesn't disparage your being honest with him, I said, "Yes, Your Majesty, it was just wonderful. But, you know, the little boys ran; the girls didn't run." And I was really partly joking. But he thought about this for a moment. Then he looked at his aide and said, "Take a note. Next year the girls will run." That was very typical of him.
Another year when I was interviewing him, he insisted it didn't take much prodding that I go out to the new Sultan Qaboos University. I found there an example of the wisdom of this leader and believe me, I don't talk like this about many of the leaders I've interviewed. He told me that he wanted young women to go to the university. "But," he said, "although I am the Sultan, I cannot force this upon my people, particularly the people in the countryside." He said, "They will not send their daughters if they think they are in danger." "So," he said, "I decided, absolutely, the young women, the girls, are going to the university. But I want them to actually go. I want the families to allow them to."
He had the university built in such a way that the young men walk from their dormitories on the first floor in a covered area, and the young women walk from their dormitories on the second floor. They are seated in the same classroom boys on one side, girls on the other. The families are getting what they want. The girls are getting a good education. I thought that was an extremely good decision. I've covered many countries where the leaders were forcing or trying to force people into doing something that they weren't culturally ready for.
Then there was the story of the return of the oryx, the beautiful antelopes that had been native to Oman and then were killed off by Saudi and oil-company raiding parties. His Majesty, who is also extremely concerned about ecology and environment he even has a Ministry of Environment that checks out every single industrial development that goes into Oman was determined to bring back these exotic, curly-horned creatures. He got them from different zoos around the world and he took them in his own air force helicopters and planes up to the high desert of Oman. The tribespeople were well prepared. Each tribesperson was responsible for one of the oryx gave it a name, watched it, guarded it. When the animals came off the plane, some of the tribespeople fell down and thanked Allah for bringing back their oryx, which were taken away so many years ago.
One of the times I interviewed His Majesty I very carefully asked him about his overthrow of his father in 1970. I asked him, "I hope I'm not overstepping the bounds, but how did you feel about it?" A certain air of melancholy came over him. He could have said he didn't want to talk about it, but instead he said,
|In the beginning, it never entered my mind that I would eventually have to do what I did in the end. All the time, I was thinking about how to go about it. I had thought about it carefully. Then, in 1969, the time suddenly came. It was the time when I saw no opportunity of my being asked to help, and things were not going well at all. People were fed up. The country was emptying out as people went abroad. There was the war against us from South Yemen. It came very suddenly to my mind that I had to do something to save the situation and to save my country.|
He is an unusually honest and approachable man. Last winter, I had my most recent interview with His Majesty. I was privileged this time to go out to his Royal Camp in the desert. The Sultan goes out every winter for about a month. It's kind of a floating Majlis. He goes specifically to see the tribespeople and his subjects who cannot or will not come into the city. It was a beautiful camp, but very simple. We were out in the hard desert, little hills all around. It was very quiet. There were a number of tents. His royal tent was not ostentatious. There were a lot of soldiers around, but it was very calm and quiet.
I went, late in the afternoon, after some oil-company representatives were there, into the tent with a couple of other people and interviewed His Majesty. We talked in particular about the two most sensitive issues in the Middle East: fundamentalist Islam and women. This was within a year after some dissidents had been captured, which obviously had disturbed him very much.
I want to read a couple of his quotes on these two subjects, because I think they're very telling. He talked about the young men who were convicted of extremism, of dissidents, the spring before, apparently trying to overthrow him. He said to me, "They were ambitious for power. It was a network that was ready to spring. They confessed they were using religion as a tool, if you will, the bridge to power." Then he talked about the real Islam: "The roots of Islam really are simple. There is the belief in God. The Prophet is His messenger. There is no difference between black and white, men and women. All enjoy the same rights on earth. And in the afterlife, all will be judged on their merits. You must believe in all the religions which came before you. You try to convince everyone with dialogue."
"But," he said, "with the Islamic extremists, anybody who dares not believe as they do is an enemy to be killed. They are hungry to be somebody. They want power. They want everyone else not to think."
Then we talked about women. He had named 1994 the "Year of the Woman." Now, you don't have to do that in the Middle East. You don't have to go out looking for trouble. He did but then he always has. He even gave a major speech on the equality of women. And it was not accepted very well everywhere in the Gulf. The minister of information, Abdul Aziz Al-Rowas, said to me, "Last year, the Sultan hit the emancipation of women full on. He said they are not limited in anything. The speech on women was neither liberal nor conservative, but concerned with the growth of the nation."
The Sultan's philosophy, which he explained to me that late afternoon in his tent out in the Royal Majlis, is quite simple and fits perfectly with his seafarer people's tolerance and thousand-year-old openness to the world:
|You take a step, you consolidate. You look at the world, you see what you should be doing. We don't rush into things without knowing what we are doing. We study carefully before acting. If we take a step, we see if we were right before we take another. We always keep in mind our culture, our religion, our history, so we don't forget our roots but select what is good for us. And we never lose sight of our connections with our people.|
In closing, I would say that Oman has a lot to show people. The country is not perfect; there are problems. There are questions that should be asked. The Sultan has had a gauge for how fast his people had to move, how fast they could open up politically. There are questions of corruption, questions, as we saw a year ago last spring, of young people who are not totally happy with the regime. But Oman is a country that has now become an example for the world through its rationality and its practical development policy. I think there's another question that people outside Oman should look at. I was in Paris last week talking with Olivier Roy, who is one of the best analysts of Islamic fundamentalism. He said, "The problem with the Arab world is not democracy. The funny thing is that the dynasties are the ones that are doing the job. The pro-Western' governments are unable to create the tools. Who are the real modernists in the Middle East?" And then he mentioned Sultan Qaboos.
I have been very critical of so many of the countries and the leaders that I cover. And you must be critical when you see the terrible civil wars and the anarchy and hatred that many leaders engender. But every time I go to Oman, I find that it gets better more new buildings, more gardens for the people to bring their children to. And some day I am sure the little girls will run too.
For tribal people (and outside of the capital area the majority of Omanis have tribal origins) this meant the loosening of patron-client ties as most people no longer were solely dependent on a tribal elite for protection of person and property.
The present baby boom in Oman needs to be understood within this climate of intensive social competition and image building. Oman's population more than tripled between 1970 and 1993, and Omani women today have an average of 7.7 children, one of the highest birth rates in the world. Some of the factors that have contributed to the present population explosion are improved health care, social mobility (large families are considered a sign of social strength in tribal Oman), and a cultural role for women that links fertility and hospitality.
The relation between birth and hospitality is firmly embedded in the taken-for-granted, poorly articulated, practical routines of daily activities for women although it can be seen in the way some women present themselves in photographs. Giving birth and hospitality go hand in hand, in much the same way as the roles of "wife and mother" in some segments of Western society do. Indeed the roles of wife and mother belong to different categories in Oman the role of wife belongs to the private world of family life, while the role of mother is one that a woman displays in public. A woman usually begins to play her second important role as provider of hospitality and networking in the community after the birth of her first child.
The act of giving birth to a live child is recognized in Omani communities by a three-week postpartum visiting period for women. Women's patterns of visiting after births how often a woman comes, how long she takes before her first visit, whether she visits at all are a code for communicating shifts in the relationships of family clusters towards one another, information that can change rapidly today and that is all the more valuable because men are away from their communities for long periods of time. In 1994 Sultan Qaboos began encouraging Omani women to space births. The government has taken some measures to encourage family planning and hopes that people will opt for smaller families as an increasing number of Omani women are educated and enter the labor force. (In 1993, 18.7 percent of jobs in the government were filled by women, mostly in education and health.3) Even if the birth rate drops significantly as of today, the rapid population growth of the last 25 years is going to weigh heavily on the Omani government and strain the environment for years to come, in particular regarding health services, schools and water.
The achievements of the Omani government in the field of education are remarkable. Today almost all children have access to elementary education and some 40 percent of people under 30 are literate4. Schools are evenly distributed throughout the Sultanate and play a central role in the life of communities. The even distribution of schools has been particularly beneficial for girls because many people are reluctant to have their daughters leave the community to study.
The opening of Sultan Qaboos University in 1987 provided the first opportunity for most Omani women and many young men to obtain a university degree. By far, the most popular topic for women is Islamic studies; teaching continues to be the favored field. The first class of medical students graduated recently and in the last two years, two-thirds of the entering medical students have been women.
There are several thousand Omanis studying outside of Oman, at their own expense or on various forms of scholarships. Most of the students are studying professions such as engineering, business administration or medicine.
Two-thirds of Omani students who attend other government colleges and institutes are in teachers' training colleges. Young Omanis are showing a lukewarm interest in technical and vocational training. The one exception is the Institute for Health Sciences, which has shown an increase in women students in the last two years5. Meanwhile, there were 14,000 secondary-school graduates in 1994. This number is increasing 10-15 percent yearly, while only 4,000 students were accepted in Sultan Qaboos University and other institutes of higher education6.
Many young men and a growing number of young women, especially those in such fields as Islamic education, literature and even business, now face the difficult task of finding a job within an economy whose rules are changing. The government is encouraging diversification, privatization and Omanization in the private sector. It is offering stipends to students going into vocational training; it is offering financial rewards to private business if they train graduates of various levels of education; it is encouraging Omanis with seed grants and protective measures to invest in small business ventures. The government is also exhorting young people not to refuse the jobs available in the private sector. It is calling for frugality, saving and self-dependency7.
Young Omanis from wealthier families can weather the changes for some time. Others, and in particular Omanis who live in the interior of the country, where there is little industry and a very high birth rate, are at risk of seeing in the next years a significant reduction in their standard of living. An Omani woman of the interior once told me: "Indians and descendants of slaves are the same thing: both work for you." If the government is to reduce the non-national population to 15 and eventually 10 percent, one of its most serious tasks is convincing people that taking on certain jobs in the private sector that are now done mostly by Indians or Asians does not necessarily imply a return to ties of dependency and inequality.
In 1994 the government responded to a growing need for increased popular participation in decision making by expanding the selection and composition of the Majlis Ash-Shura or Consultative Assembly. The number of seats was increased to 80, younger members were appointed and, for the first time, the Nominating Colleges of the six districts of Muscat included women. Four women presented their candidacies to the Majlis and two were successful8. Members of the Majlis Ash-Shura review social and economic legislation and development plans, and they can summon a minister at any time (except for the ministers of Foreign Affairs and Defense) to discuss the ministry's performance. It has done so on several occasions, including a televised questioning of the minister of Comunications. While it does not have the power to completely overturn a decision made by a ministry and is restricted in the kinds of topics it can discuss, its recommendations have been influential, notably in the field of educational reform. In 1994, for example, after much debate, its position that television satellite dishes should not be banned in Oman was adopted as national policy9.
The Omani government has made it clear that it envisions a gradual implementation of popular participation in the political process. Some Omanis worry that the government's response is too slow for the pace of change; education, television and travel have made the Omani public well-aware of what public participation can mean. A first step towards changing people's attitudes towards work and fertility is the development of occasions and forums in which people feel confortable enough to raise and discuss openly issues that are of concern to them. There is a need for creating more such occasions in Oman today, but the Majlis Ash-Shura is a step in that direction.
If patriotism, as Dr. Johnson said, is "the last refuge of scoundrels," statistics are the last refuge of economists. Let me begin by trying to paint a picture of some of the achievements of Oman's economy, a picture in statistics, with some comparisons to other countries so that perhaps you can get a feel for what these statistics mean.
When you look back to 1960, you're struck by the fact that there were almost no statistics about the Omani economy. Indeed, the only one I could find is that per capita income, the economist's measure of economic progress, was less than $100. It put Oman about at the same level of economic development in income terms as Zaire, less well-off than Egypt. By 1994, Oman's per capita income was nearly $5,000, in the same neighborhood as Uruguay, much higher than the economically developing Asian tigers of Malaysia and Thailand and in approximately the same neighborhood as Korea. Oman, indeed, is one of the few economies in the world to have successfully graduated from the World Bank. We would like all economies to do as well as Oman has done in helping us to work ourselves out of a job.
What is even more exciting than the per capita income numbers is the progress in social indicators. In 1960, an Omani at birth could expect to live 38 years, about the same as someone in Ethiopia. Today, she can expect to live between 69 and 70 years, about the same as in Thailand or Hungary. Infant mortality rates in those days were 159 per 1,000 live births, roughly equivalent to Bolivia, the poorest country in Latin America. Today, it's 22 per 1,000 live births, like Venezuela or Russia. As for hospitals and clinics, in 1970 there were nine. Today there are 137.
These are impressive dimensions of progress. But as the last speaker indicated, there has also been another result: population growth is the highest in the Arab world, at nearly 4.7 percent per year.
Educational attainment has been extraordinary. In 1970 there were three public schools. Today there are 779. The public school enrollment rate in 1970 was 3 percent of the eligible age group of the population. Today it is 100 percent.
What is even more extraordinary, for those of you who know the Middle East, is that the gender gap the gap between women's enrollment rates and men's enrollment rates at the primary level went from about 33 percent in 1970, about the same as Pakistan's, to zero in 1995, which puts Oman on a par with the advanced economies of Europe and the powerhouses of the East Asia region.
Finally, all of this development has been achieved with a remarkable record of macroeconomic stability, and that is not a trivial achievement. Those of us who study a wide range of developing countries have noted that one of the downsides of rapid economic progress is frequently rapid inflation and instability in the foreign-exchange markets. For the last 25 years, Oman has had virtually zero inflation and extraordinary stability in its exchange rate.
There is, indeed, much to celebrate. Oman has transformed itself from a low-income economy, with standards of living very similar to Bangladesh or an African economy to an upper-middle-income economy with extraordinary social progress.
But there are many challenges for the future. Since 1985, growth of income per person has been less than 0.5 percent per year. Indeed, in some ways, the glory days of Oman ended in 1985. For one reason, to put it very bluntly, in terms of the relationship between production and reserves, the oil is running out. Estimates vary, but in about 2010 Oman is in danger of exhausting its proven reserves. Oil remains 40 percent of gross domestic product. It's about two-thirds of government revenues.
What is perhaps even more disturbing is that oil prices are likely to remain constant in real terms. The best guess of international experts is that a price of between $15 and $20 a barrel is what we are looking forward to as we move into the twenty-first century. That is about two-thirds of the price that prevailed in the 1970s. As a result, oil revenues today are about 90 percent of what they were in 1990 and not likely to grow.
This means that if the Omani economy is to adapt to the twenty-first century, it has to adapt to being an economy in which oil is no longer the primary engine of growth, the handmaiden but not the engine of economic change. That, of course, means that there is a need for economic adjustment. What is the central measure for economic adjustment? Savings. Oil remains an important resource for the Omani economy, but only if income from oil is saved will it provide the basis for the prosperity of future generations.
Today national savings are about 25 percent of the gross domestic product. In 1980, they were about 45 percent. Today the budget deficit of the government ranges between 5 and 10 percent. The balance-of-payments deficit is about 5 percent. There is need over the medium term to adjust these macroeconomic variables. The good news is that this is no surprise to the Omani government. The debate, indeed, is not over whether to adjust, which is the debate in many developing countries, but over how quickly to adjust. There is a national consensus that savings are important and that oil is no longer an infinite source of prosperity, but there is still substantial debate over how quickly to move in the direction of greater national savings and more restraint on public expenditure.
There is also an emerging national consensus on the dimensions of further adjustments in the Omani economy. Let me share with you four broad areas that the Sultan and his government have pointed out to the nation as areas for change.
First of all, there must be a change in the role of government reducing government where activities can be done by the private sector through privatization, through the concession of certain utilities to the private sector, and through expanding and enhancing the role of private investment. This will require refocusing the development-planning process from one that directs public investments to one that tries to promote private investment. In effect, shifting the entire mentality of economic management from one that depends on the state to one that emphasizes partnership between the public and private sectors.
Second, as the last speaker emphasized, new employment opportunities need to be created. In the past, the government has been the employer of first resort for those Omanis with the highest levels of skills. Retrenching, adjusting and shifting government focus means that the private sector must become and is becoming the employer of choice for many Omanis with high-level skills. But this, of course, means creative new approaches to Omanization: reducing the number of non-Omanis in important economic positions in the economy; shifting attitudes towards work, as the last speaker said, among many members of the population; and reforming public-employment policies. All of these are areas under active debate in the sultanate.
Third, economic diversification must be implemented. Oman has the virtue of having been a diversified economy before oil. There is a recognition that it needs to return to a diversified economy in a world in which oil is no longer the primary source of wealth. What does that mean? Industrial development where it makes sense, an expansion of the services sector, a return to the emphasis on agriculture, where appropriate, and, of course, the use of the abundant natural resources of the sea.
Finally, human resources need to be developed. Oman's achievements in primary education are extraordinary. There is now an emerging recognition that this needs to be extended into secondary education. The debate in Oman is not over whether secondary education is a good thing; it is over whether basic education should be 9 or 12 years. Resources will have to be diverted from other activities to educational expansion and to the enhancement of quality, which remains a problem throughout the Arab world. In higher education, as you heard, the focus has to shift from primarily humanistic studies to those technically oriented disciplines that can provide the basis for economic diversification.
Now, how is Oman confronting these four challenges? I think in a very interesting way. Earlier this year, with the help and assistance of the private sector and with the leadership of the Ministry of Economic Development and the late deputy prime minister for finance, Oman convened a Vision Conference under the patronage of the Sultan, "A Vision for 2020." It brought together the leadership of Omani society to discuss these very economic challenges. It was an extraordinary experiment in the communication of economic policy and the building of economic consensus, unique in the Gulf economies. Such an effort is not unusual in the nations of East Asia. It is extraordinary in the nations of the Middle East. To have a forum within which the private sector, the leaders of the business community, and the leaders of society are brought together, where they deal with the economic challenges that exist and try to form a consensus on a national action program is a remarkable example of economic leadership.
I have often said that the principal development issue in the Middle East is not finance; it is not resources. It is ideas. It is a willingness to confront the challenges of economic reform and a willingness on the part of national political leaders to take a leadership role. The Sultan and I believe this is something to celebrate is one of those few leaders of the Arab world who has taken the economic agenda in his own two hands and pushed it forward. The Vision Conference is one example of this. A second example is movement toward regional economic integration. Oman is one of the leading economies of the region in looking toward regional solutions to such problems as water and economic development. Indeed, it is a leading figure in the formation of the Regional Bank, which is proposed for the Amman summit.
It is in these areas that I find hope for celebration of the next 25 years. The challenges are formidable, but the leadership in Oman is also formidable, and I, like Georgie Anne Geyer, do not easily say that for countries in the region. There is a need for change. But I think the agent of change, from the top down, exists in Oman to confront the challenge of the twenty-first century.
Q: Ms. Geyer and some of the speakers on the earlier panel alluded to
the incident of last year in which there was apparently some sort of plot and a number of
people were arrested. Could anyone tell us whether this was an isolated incident or an
indication of a growing opposition movement? And, in light of Mr. Page's comments on
the necessity for some painful degree of economic reform, do we need to be increasingly
worried about Oman's internal stability?
Ms. Geyer: I can tell you what His Majesty said to me and what other Omani officials said. I was surprised and pleased with their openness when I was there in February. They discussed this openly and critically. They were shocked. The Sultan was particularly shocked, as I said. The incident involved about 200 young men, the gamut of fundamentalists with, everyone said, some aid from outside, but they never would pinpoint where this was from. I think it was probably from individual movements, not from governments, but from movements like perhaps those in Jordan or Egypt. There were a few who wanted to overthrow the Sultan, and there were more who displayed various levels of amorphous discontent with, as I would interpret it, the rate of political change, of giving over political power to the young people.
They were convicted in court. The ring was broken very quickly. Some were sentenced to death. The Sultan immediately rescinded those sentences, and it is my understanding that they will be released quite soon, maybe even this year. My own judgment, and this could be faulty, because certainly anyone outside the security forces probably doesn't know, is that there is not widespread discontent. I can almost always feel that in a country. You don't feel it in Oman; you don't see it.
At the same time, it's a question how fast a country can move to incorporate all the needs of its people. Oman has done this brilliantly, socially and economically, and they are moving on this politically with the Majlis Ash-Shura. Is it fast enough for everyone? Obviously, it wasn't fast enough for this group. But the interesting thing, I think, is that they're willing to take a chance now on letting these people go. One of the things that His Majesty said to me that I didn't quote was that he didn't want the names let out initially, because it would embarrass the families. This is typical of the Omani approach.
Dr. Page: On the question of whether the economic adjustments will be
sufficiently severe to, in a sense, engender widespread discontent, my own reading on this
is no. We're not talking about an adjustment of the sort that one is looking at in Algeria,
nor are we talking about an absence of growth of the sort that one has seen in Egypt over
the last 10 years. There is a need for adjustment, but it fortunately is one that can be done
gradually over a period of two to five years and should lead to very stable conditions
within the domestic economy.
Q: Dr. Eickelman, could you elaborate on the role of women as
disseminators of culture in Oman. I was struck by your comment that most women who are
at university in Oman are studying Islam. I wonder how that will translate in terms of
dissemination of culture to children?
Dr. Eickelman: I think that the large numbers of women who are going to Sultan Qaboos University to study Islamic studies reflects in large part what they perceive as the job opportunities for them. Many people, many women, especially in the interior of the country, still favor gender-segregated employment within schools and in their own community. And I think that this is reflected in this large number of women in Islamic studies. In general, education has really transformed the lives of Omani women in the interior. It has transformed their identity, the way they handle their children, their hopes for the future. I'm sure it is affecting the way they're going to eventually educate their children.
Q: If I'm not mistaken, Oman just recently has started to give out
tourist visas. Do you foresee tourism playing a central part in Oman's economy?
Dr. Page: It has the potential, but as with many of the Gulf economies, there are some important decisions that have to be made with respect to tourism strategy, primarily between mass tourism and high-income, high-value tourism. That has to be balanced against people's concerns about the influence of mass tourism on social values. My own sense, from discussions with the Economic Development Ministry and others concerned with this, is that Oman is moving in a rather judicious way towards opening up to high-end tourism, and I think that's very appropriate. One, because the tourist resources are relatively fragile ecologically, so it makes sense not to have mass tourism. Secondly, because the types of tourists one can attract through high-end tourism tend to be more sensitive to cultural norms. It's a question of whether they want to go the route of Tunisia and Morocco or whether they want a somewhat more elite tourist development. I think that's the way they're going at the moment.
Q: Dr. Page, you mentioned the oil reserves in Oman. How long will
they last? I heard that in Kuwait they're expecting 200 years. Do you have any statistics
on Oman or any other country?
Dr. Page: It's a dangerous thing to speculate on, especially with the ambassador here. Most of the estimates floating around, which are consistent with the 200 years for Kuwait, would suggest that by about 2010 the oil reserves may well be depleted. That, of course, ignores the fact that there may be substantial reserves of natural gas yet to be discovered and exploited, which could stretch out the balance of production. It also, of course, neglects the fact that one may choose to extract less now and therefore stretch out the period of time during which the reserves are available. Certainly Oman and the government has recognized this unlike other Gulf states, has moved more forcefully to deal with it. It cannot afford to defer decisions about economic diversification and try to build up a fund of savings for future generations to the extent that the Saudi economy or the Kuwaiti economy can. In that sense, they're much closer to Bahrain in terms of having to confront these issues of economic adjustment at this time.
Q: As oil runs out and systems loosen up, instead of a Western
democratic system replacing the present system, do you foresee Islamic systems taking
Dr. Page: Let me only deal with the sort of economical liberalization aspect and then hand it over, because journalists, I think, are better equipped to handle these mega-questions than I am. I think the Vision Conference was extremely illustrative of a process that I'd like to see in a lot more Arab countries, from Morocco all the way across through Iraq. When you look at the Asian economies, you're struck by the fact that the political leadership tries to bring the private sector into an active dialogue, a dialogue among equals, and to talk about the appropriate roles of private capital and public action. That kind of dialogue is very rare in the Arab world.
This Oman Vision Conference was one of the first organized attempts to achieve that. Did it succeed completely? No, I don't think it did. But it's quite clearly indicative of the fact that the political leadership in Oman sees a need to open up the system economically, create space for the private sector and enter into a partnership of equals with private investment. That makes me very optimistic, because one of the routes of Islamic extremism is, in fact, lack of economic progress. And we know that the private sector has progressively got to become the engine of growth in the region. Sultan Qaboos and his colleagues in government have clearly got the message. And that makes me somewhat more optimistic that you won't see the kinds of political forces active today in a place like Algeria.
Ms. Geyer: The Sultan has, in terms of oil, been branching out as well. He has spoken of working with Pakistan on an oil pipeline through the Indian Ocean. He's been working with the Omani oil companies in Central Asia, in Kazakstan. Even the oil situation is not static. They are thinking all the time about where they can branch out, and they're doing it.
As to the question of political Islamic extremism or radicalism, I don't see this in Oman at all. No country escapes its history, and Oman's history is one of openness to the world. It was a seafaring empire. The Omanis bear themselves like seafarers. They're open, humorous, filled with life. Again, I would ask people who are interested to look into the Obadi teachings. I just don't see that radicalism has a future in Oman.
Q: Dr. Page, the earlier panel made reference to the healthy trade
relationship between the United States and Oman. As Oman seeks to diversify, what sectors are
U.S. companies going to be looking at as far as
bids, joint ventures and future business?
Dr. Page: I think, broadly speaking, when you talk about economic diversification in Oman, there will be some industrial diversification. And I suspect that the Omanis will be looking for joint ventures and foreign investments in an expansion of industrial investments in the region probably to serve South Asia, where they have a geographical comparative advantage and strong historical links and in services. One sees it already in Oman, the explosion of U.S. franchises and other service activities. I think those will continue to expand as long as the economy remains reasonably healthy. You should see a corresponding diminution of both petroleum and petroleum-linked activities.
Another area which is going to become interesting for U.S. companies is in either concession arrangements or direct privatization of public utilities. The government has already started in the power sector. My suspicion is that it's also likely to move in such fields as telecommunications, water and other services, essential public utilities. Those could be of very high interest to U.S. companies.
1 I am grateful to Salim M. Almahruqi of the embassy of the Sultanate of Oman in Washington, DC, for providing me with the most recent documents, statistics and press clippings on Oman. In 1993 the civil service was 65.2 percent Omani; oil companies reported 64.6 percent Omanization and commercial banks reported 81.3 percent Omanization (Tribute to Oman, Apex Publishing, 1994-95), p. 13. back to text
2 Al-Markazi, Central Bank of Oman, January/February 1994, p. 1. back to text
3 Oman Daily Observer, Muscat, September 9, 1995, p. 1. back to text
4 Richard A. Curtiss, "Oman: A Model for All Developing Nations," Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, July/August 1995, vol. XIV, no. 2, p. 52. back to text
5 In 1993-94, Omani students in government colleges and institutes totaled 4,596 of which 3,139 were attending intermediate teachers' training colleges (Sultanate of Oman, Ministry of Development, Statistical Year Book, October 1994, pp. 607, 651, 654). back to text
6 See "New School Year 94-95," Al-Markazi, Central Bank of Oman, September/October 1994, p. 3. back to text
7 See "Omanization," Tribute to Oman, 1994-95, p. 13; "Developing Small Industries in Oman," Al-Markazi, November-December 1994, pp. 1-2; "Manpower Development in Oman," Al-Markazi, July-August 1994, p. 2; and "Vocational Training Institutes," Al-Markazi, September-October 1994, p. 2. See also H.M. Sultan Qaboos's speech at the opening of the second term of the Majlis Ash-Shura in International Republican Institute (IRI), Oman. Political Development and the Majlis Ash-Shura, July 1995, appendix 10. back to text
8 IRI, Oman. July 1995, p. 24. back to text
9 Ibid., p. 21-22. back to text