OMAN: ‘We have always believed in dialogue’
When all but a handful of Arab states cut off diplomatic relations with Egypt, to protest the 1978 Camp David Accords signed with Israel, Oman did not follow suite. It quietly charted its own course, keeping ties with Egypt as well as the other Arab governments. That move speaks volumes about this small country, positioned strategically at the entrance to the Strait of Hormuz, the gateway to the Persian Gulf, and its forward-thinking leader, Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said.
“We have always believed in dialogue,” explained Ambassador Hunaina bint Sultan bin Ahmad Al Mughairi, in a recent interview with DiplomaticTraffic.com. And following what often is the road less traveled in the Middle East has served Oman well over the years.
The ambassador, who is the first woman envoy to represent an Arab country in Washington, attributes much of Oman’s success to the policies of the Sultan. “We are very lucky to have a wise leader,” she said. Sultan Qaboos took control of the country from his father in 1970. At the time, Oman was lagging far behind other countries in the region. For example, it boasted just one secondary school.
Unlike most of its Gulf neighbors, Oman is not blessed with vast reserves of oil and gas, and has had to use its resources sparingly to fund modernization and diversification of the economy. “We have come a long way with what we have,” said Ambassador Al Mughairi. “We have no reason to complain.” Among other benefits Omanis enjoy are free education and healthcare.
In fact the population as a whole generally seems satisfied with their situation. There is little pressure to make Oman more of a democracy and there is no evidence of an Islamist tendency. A measure of Oman’s success is that you never see its name associated with terror attacks or other manifestations of Islamic extremism.
Indeed. Today Oman, a country the size of Kansas and with a population of some 3.1 million, is a success story. The capital, Muscat, is an attractive place to visit, breaking the monotony of the desert with a delightful splash of green palms and red bougainvilleas amid white villas and modest government buildings, which spread out from the ancient port dominated by the royal palace and fort. There are none of the flashy glass and steel towers that have risen from the desert in most of the oil-rich cities elsewhere in the Gulf region, giving Muscat the look of a truly Arabian city.
About a quarter of the population is expatriate, a small percentage by Gulf standards, and women are well established, with three holding government ministerial portfolios. “I never encountered any obstacles as a woman,” the ambassador said of her own career path, which was primarily in economic departments and investment promotion for the country. (This is her first posting, but her husband is a career diplomat.)
Since coming to Washington late last year, Ambassador Al Mughairi has been caught up in a whirlwind of activities surrounding the passage of a Free Trade Agreement with Washington. Oman is the fourth Arab country to negotiate one, after Jordan, Morocco and Bahrain. Signed by US Trade Representative Rob Portman on January 19 this year, the FTA has been making its way through the Congressional approval process and the ambassador hopes it will be passed and signed by President Bush before Memorial Day.
The FTA is expected to boost bilateral trade, which stood at $784 million for 2004. The FTA exempts all industrial and retail goods, and 87 percent of agricultural goods, from customs duties.
Already US giant Dow Chemical is a major investor in a polyurethane plant, and Canadian company Alcan has made a large investment in a joint venture to produce aluminum. But Oman is all about diversifying away from oil and gas, and encourages investments in downstream industries in general, as well as other sectors. One concern high on planners’ minds is the fact that 60 percent of Oman’s population is 18 years old or younger. They will soon need jobs.
One sector looking for significant American participation is tourism and related infrastructure. Two major Omani projects are the construction of a new city, called Blue City, on the coast north of Muscat, and Wave, an integrated development in Muscat.
Blue City is a $15 billion project under way now. It envisions several first-class hotels and resorts on a beach area north of Muscat. They will be the nexus of a development that will include golf courses, residences and offices.
The ambassador stressed that Oman has long had excellent relations with Washington. “We are friends of the United States, regardless of the administration in power,” she said. “We are always there for America.”
Asked what her greatest hope is for her mission in Washington, Ambassador Al Mughairy said she wants to improve the image of her country and the Arab world in general. She wants to dispel the notion that Arab women are all oppressed and living in bondage, and she wants to help people in United States come to appreciate her country and her people in a realistic and comprehensive way.
Curriculum Vitae of Hunaina Sultan Al-Mughairy
Bachelor's degree in commerce -- Politechnical Institute, Cairo, Egypt
Master's degree -- New York University, USA
2005 - present
Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipontary of the Sultanate of Oman to the United States
1999 - 2005
Representative of the Omani Center for Investment Promotion and Export Development
1996 - 1998
Director General for Investment Promotion and Export Development
1991 - 1996
Advisor for Industrial Affairs, Office of the Under-Secretary for Commerce and Industry
1985 - 1991
Director of Industrial Planning and Research, Ministry of Commerce and Industry
1984 - 1985
Permanent Mission of the Sultanate of Oman to the United Nations
1979 - 1984
Director of Loans Administration, Ministry of Commerce and Industry
1973 - 1974
Assistant to the Economical Advisor of His Majesty the Sultan of Oman
Member of the Omani Delegation to the Middle East and North Africa Conference -- Doha, Qatar
Member of the Omani Delegation to the Annual Round of Commercial Discussion between the Sultanate and the US government
Married with two children, a boy and a girl