Sultanate of Oman: A Bridge between Regions and Cultures
Wednesday, May 23rd, 2007
Interview with H. E. Ambassador of the Sultanate of Oman: Mr. Khalifa Bin Ali Al-Harthy
Was Sinbad the Sailor an Omani? There is no direct evidence, but this legend is gladly believed in the Sultanate of Oman. The Omanis have always been sailors, who have crossed the Indian Ocean in all directions.
Oman of today, ruled over since 1970 by H. M. Sultan Qaboos Bin Said Bin Tamur al Said, assumes this historical and geographical role. ARAB FORUM spoke with Ambassador Khalifa Bin Ali Al-Harthy about this, as well as about the balance between the tradition and modernity of the ca. 2.5 million inhabitants of the sultanate, which has been ruled over since 1744 by the Al Bu Said Dynasty, and about relations with Germany.
ARAB FORUM: Excellency, Oman is not very often in the headlines, except in respect to tourism. Do you consider that to be an advantage?
Al-Harthy: The news coming from that part of the world is for the most part not always good news. If Oman is not in the news, except as a tourist destination, everything is going well.
ARAB FORUM: What is Oman’s role, particularly within the Arab world?
Al-Harthy: We are part of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and we are part of the Arab world. We do play a role when we think there is something we can add and we can achieve. Many things we do you will not find in the press. We don’t care to be in the news. We support all initiatives that make our part of the world more peaceful and prosperous.
ARAB FORUM: Oman has always been independent and has always kept strong trade links to India and East Africa. Does Oman still see its role as a hub to these regions or as a bridge between the cultures?
Al-Harthy: I think that is an asset. We are a country of people who are aware of their history. The Omanis have reached to East Africa, they have reached to India, they have reached to China even. We were the second country in the Arab world to send an ambassador to the United States in the 19th century. We still have good relations with what we call the Indian Ocean rim. We are one of the seven founding members of the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC). It is an asset we have used in our recent history to accomplish positive things. It is a principle of our foreign policy not to intervene in the domestic affairs of other countries. We always try to find ways to use a peaceful solution to all issues at hand.
ARAB FORUM: Is this history of being placed between cultures the reason for a policy of balance and tolerance?
Al-Harthy: It could be history; it could be our geographical situation that we have these cross cultural relations with our neighbours. All those who have lived in Oman have gotten the impression that Oman is a tolerant country with tolerant people. This is something we are proud of. The main asset of a country is its people. It is more important than the assets of nature.
ARAB FORUM: What does Omanization mean?
Al-Harthy: Oman, as a modern state, started in 1970 when His Majesty Sultan Qaboos Bin Said Bin Tamur al Said came to power. He transformed Oman into what it is now. During this process of development, we needed a lot of work force and expertise from outside. It used to be the case that the Omanis preferred to work in the government only because it was more secure and more rewarding. Now life is changing. To cut it short, Omanization means that Omanis works in the sectors where the job opportunities formerly used to be only for foreigners. Now, for example, 95 % of the work force in the banking sector are Omanis, also in the education sector, the majority are Omanis. That is part of the diversification of our economy. We have to find job opportunities for our youngsters. We have vocational training for young Omanis to work in different segments of the economyWe like to see the expertise of countries like Germany and others assisting us to enable our youngsters to have the right skills to work in all sectors. It is a challenge to change the mentality of the people, to convince them to work in this or that sector rather than in the government.
ARAB FORUM: 81 % of all exports are oil and gas. How does Oman seek to become independent of that?
Al-Harthy: Our government policy is to diversify the economy and to encourage the private sector. We are also encouraging the small and medium industries, tourism and the service sector to add more to the economy. We have allocated industrial areas with certain facilities to establish factories or plants in parts of Oman. We have also major projects and just now opened the first section of Sohar port, an industrial port. Before that, we opened the container port of Salalah. Many international companies and investors are investing in Oman, including a famous German chemical company that has the biggest single investment in the Arab world of more than 400 million US$.
ARAB FORUM: Is tourism one of the future industries? And what kind of tourism?
Al-Harthy: We are concentrating on tourism. But it is our policy not to open for mass tourism. We have to balance between tradition and modernity in order to save and to protect our heritage and our environment. We have to care for the sensitivities of the people and their way of living. When you come to Oman, you will see in our manner of dress and in our buildings that we have not abandoned our tradition. We are working on that balance. In moving forward, we don’t want to have a setback in our traditions when adapting the age of globalisation. I heard from visitors that we should keep away from skyscrapers. However, many touristic infrastructure projects are under way, including hotels, resorts, roads, camps etc.We can offer a mixture of things; nice and clean beaches, more than 1,000 forts and castles, sand dunes, and you will find green mountains, many oases and villages hundreds of years old. The Omanis are open to foreigners. We are proud of that.Until 2005, our largest segment of tourists for many consecutive years had been from Germany. In 2006 it was the UK. It is a challenge to have Germany again as the No. 1.
ARAB FORUM: How close are the Oman-German relations?
Al-Harthy: We are important to each other. There is a dynamic in Arab-German relations in general and in particular in Gulf-German relations. What we’d like to do is to keep this dynamism continuing. We are working on that momentum to maximize the benefits for both. We have almost finalized two agreements with Germany: protection of investments and avoidance of double taxation. We are planning to have some cultural activities in Germany. Berlin is one of the culture capitals of the world. We would like to utilize that by bringing to Germany, and particularly to Berlin, what Oman has to offer. For example, next August the Royal Oman Symphony Orchestra will take part in the festival ”young euro classic” in Berlin.We would like to see more German tourists come to Oman, more investment coming from Germany to Oman. In May there will be a meeting between EU and GCC ministers. Next September, the Omani-German Joint Committee will meet in Berlin.During the German EU presidency, we hope to achieve the signing of a free trade agreement between the two groups. It will add a momentum to these bilateral relations.There is dynamism in the Oman-German relations in particular. Chancellor Merkel visited the GCC countries recently; her next visit to the Gulf region will include. Oman. Foreign Minister Steinmeier visited Oman; my minister came here last year .A business delegation will be coming in June. We have been very active in the ITB. We want to bring more Omani students to study in Germany. I am glad to report that there is now a German-Omani University in Oman with the cooperation of Aachen University. It is a private initiative, which I think will start with the next academic year. It’s a good thing for bringing German expertise, especially in engineering.
ARAB FORUM: Excellency, thank you very much for speaking with us.