This interview with the head of state of the Sultanate of Oman was conducted in writing during the last week in January 1995 by Anne Joyce, editor of Middle East Policy.
Q: You are widely admired as an enlightened leader. What have been your major influences? What ideas, thinkers, teachers and experiences formed you as a leader?
HIS MAJESTY: There are, of course, many influences that come to bear on a young man as he advances towards maturity. In my case, my father's insistence on my thoroughly studying my religion and the history and culture of my country were a profound help in forming my consciousness of my responsibilities towards my people and to humanity at large. Also, I had the benefit-one might say as a counter-balance in a sense-of a Western education and exposure to the discipline of life as a soldier. Finally, I have had the advantage over the years of reading the political and philosophical views of many of the world's foremost thinkers. In some cases, of course, I have found myself in disagreement with the ideas they have expressed, but this disagreement in itself has proved valuable in the evolution of my formed opinions and in my recognition of the need to consider all sides of a question.
Q: It is difficult to initiate political and social change and even more difficult to follow through on it. How do you explain your success in moving your society toward greater openness and citizen participation?
HIS MAJESTY: The success we have achieved in Oman in adopting the advantages of modern society while preserving our ancient traditions and culture has been due to the close partnership that exists between my people and myself. Through every stage of our development, which initially rested on the urgent requirement to provide health care and education for all, I have borne in mind the need to preserve a careful balance between these two paramount factors-the acceptance of modernity and the retention of old established values. While some of the requirements have demanded speed, others, including political and social change, have required us to be careful to act gradually and deliberately. For example, there has been a progressive development in the powers and responsibilities of the Majlis Ash Shura - our parliament - and in its membership, which has now been carried a step forward with the admission of women. To have rushed these things with, for example, an insistence upon the early establishment of political parties and the other trappings of democracy, would have been disastrous in a society that had so recently had only the most traditional form of social structure. Now I can say we are firmly on the road to continual social and political development, and what pleases me most is the fact that this momentum is ensuring a bright and responsible future for our young people and generations to come.
Q: How does the Majlis Ash Shura function, and how are members selected?
HIS MAJESTY: The Majlis Ash Shura functions in the form of a parliament of representatives from all over the country who freely debate and make recommendations on proposed policies and problems. Members are selected initially by ballot in their constituencies-the areas in which they live and with which they are comprehensively familiar-then their names go forward to myself together with recommendations from the provincial governors who are responsible for those particular communities and who are deeply conversant with life in them.
Q: Women now have the right to vote in the selection of members of the Majlis. Four women were nominated, and two have been selected as members in the second term. Was there any resistance to giving women the vote or admitting them to the Majlis?
HIS MAJESTY: Absolutely none. Development of political participation has been widely welcomed in Oman, and encouragement of women to play their full part in the life of the country has been my policy ever since my accession.
Q: Why did you make the decision to enfranchise women?
HIS MAJESTY: I have long held the belief that to exclude women from playing a meaningful role in the life of their country amounts, in essence, to excluding 50 percent of that country's potential. Now that educational standards among women have reached a satisfactory level, it is clear that they are ready to accept the mature responsibilities of a political voice. In my speech to the opening of the current session of the Majlis [see Documentation section], I emphasized our country's need for women to take up the opportunities that now lie open to them and to assume the important role that must be theirs.
Q: Oman's economy has been well-managed over the past three five-year plans. How have low oil prices affected the country's domestic programs? What assets besides oil are being developed?
HIS MAJESTY: Depressed oil prices have inevitably had an effect on our country's domestic programs, but fortunately this decline in prices came at a time when the main infrastructure had been completed. So for some time, we have been consolidating our position and exploring other possible avenues of national income. In the latter, I think we are being quite successful. Only 34 percent of our national income is now derived directly from oil, and our efforts to broaden the base of our economy by diversifying into industries and sources unrelated to petroleum are going well. For example, five industrial estates have been progressively established, producing a range of light industry including pharmaceuticals, packaged food, vehicle components and accessories, high-quality refined copper, chrome and even gold. Exploration and assessment of our mineral resources is a continuing process. Agriculture, too, has been developed to a point where we are now approaching self-sufficiency. Our fish industry has not only made us self-sufficient in that commodity but is now exporting to other Gulf countries and elsewhere. The liquefied natural-gas industry promises to contribute almost equally to the national income with oil in about 10 year’s time.
Q: Unemployment and labor problems plague most countries in the world. How is "Omanization" of the labor force affecting your society?
HIS MAJESTY: Omanization is going well. Of course, it is still patchy in the sense that some industries are further advanced than others, but overall I am satisfied with the progress that is being made. You will appreciate that it would have been folly to have acted as some underdeveloped countries have done in the past and rushed this. The result would have been a fatal deterioration in standards and efficiency throughout the life of our country. Broadly speaking there are two levels of expatriate assistance which Oman utilizes: the first is the specialist expatriate, with training and expertise in sophisticated and technical aspects of industry; and the second is the semi- or non-skilled worker from abroad whose job it is to undertake the more mundane work that must be done. The first category is rapidly declining with the emergence of qualified Omani men and women from the university and technical colleges. The second category will be needed for some years to come since our indigenous Omani population is relatively small, and young Omanis are displaying a marked ability to take on the highly skilled work. All in all, my people have risen very positively to the opportunities and challenges that are now offered to them; and I am not only satisfied with the numbers that the Omanization program is producing, but with the quality of our people who are replacing foreigners. I should like to add that the policy of diversification of our economy to lessen dependence on oil revenues is providing broader employment opportunities for our people.
Q: Water resources are of course essential to your economy. How is water supply and demand being managed in Oman?
HIS MAJESTY: The water, as you may imagine, is a constant consideration in a climate such as ours. In the past it has been a serious concern as the expansion of our population and the development of our industries created increasing demands on our resources. Now, with the measures that are being taken to increase our water resources, the construction of recharge dams which replenish the fresh ground water in our fertile regions, and the strict control that is being exercised on development planning affecting water consumption, I think we are in a satisfactory position. But there is no doubt that we must remain vigilant to ensure that consumption does not out-balance available supplies. Fortunately, with our long coastline, if the need arose, further desalination plants could be established. All this necessarily careful control is being exercised by a government ministry especially formed for this purpose-the Ministry of Water Resources which is responsible for all aspects of the management of our water resources.
Q: Despite the fact that the Gulf region has been the site of two recent wars, Oman has managed to be on good terms with both Iran and Iraq. President Rafsanjani has recently hinted that Iran might be ready to make friendly overtures to Iraq, but perhaps he is obliquely criticizing the U.S. policy of dual containment (keeping these two large, potentially rich, countries too poor and weak to undertake foreign adventures). What would be your recommendations to the rest of the governments of the region for dealing with Gulf security?
HIS MAJESTY: Although the political situation continues to be complex, giving rise to tensions which are potentially dangerous, the answer to your question is, in reality, very simple. It is essential, for the safety and prosperity of the people living in this region, that problems that may arise between states be addressed through constructive negotiation in order to achieve a peaceful solution. As you doubtless already know, I have always advocated that international problems must be solved through peaceful means and not conflict, and given the fact that the countries of this region have so much in common in terms of religion, in nearly all cases language and culture, there is no reason, given goodwill, why such settlements should not be achieved. You may be sure, that for its part, Oman will always be ready to do whatever it can to achieve these aims. I also believe that every effort should be made to further the work of the Gulf Cooperation Council in strengthening our collective ability to defend ourselves and develop our economic and social progress, all of which are stabilizing factors.
Q: How would you characterize Oman's relations with the United States?
HIS MAJESTY: I am pleased to say that Oman's relations with the United States are excellent, being firmly established on many years of mutual understanding and trust.
Q: Now that the United States is heavily involved in Gulf security, what are your principal concerns?
HIS MAJESTY: As I have indicated earlier, my principal concern is that every state that has a vital interest in Gulf security should play its full part, energetically and constructively to maintain that security and to further the well-being of our peoples. It can readily be understood that, given the fact that this region produces a commodity that is vital to the rest of the world-oil-the whole international community has an interest and responsibility in assisting in every way possible the maintenance of peace and security in this region.
Q: The Republican party, having just scored a landslide victory in the 1994 U.S. elections, is set to implement changes in foreign affairs and defense. Some Republicans now in power are relatively isolationist. What factors regarding the Gulf do you think should be kept in mind by U.S. policy makers as they reinforce or revise American commitments abroad?
HIS MAJESTY: It is not my practice to comment upon factors that may emerge in the domestic policies of other states. However, I think it is appropriate to observe that the United States has a profoundly important role in supporting the maintenance of peace worldwide. In recent years, there have been encouraging signs that nations have realized and accepted that conflict between them leads only to destruction and misery, and in reality settles nothing. This recognition has been accompanied by one to which I have already referred: the need to settle international disputes peacefully and constructively, for therein lies the only path to permanent and honorable settlement. Unhappily, while states have accepted this, we still see conflict in several parts of the world between groups within nations. Although it is primarily the business of those peoples concerned to settle their differences, it is important that all of us stand ready to assist the peace process in any way possible, if called upon to do so. The capacity of the United States to act on the international scene is indispensable in this connection. In exercising it prudently and constructively, this will be in the interest not only of the world community at large but also of the people of the United States. A famous English poet of the sixteenth century, I believe, said that "no man is an island." Those words are even truer today than when he wrote them. All these factors have particular relevance to the Gulf, which has the unhappy history of being one of the most volatile areas of the world. Yet, as is also well known, it is an indispensable source of a life-giving commodity vital to many countries of the world. Thus the problems which arise here should be addressed by the United States and the rest of the international community with understanding and constructive realism in support of all elements in the region that are working for its stability and progress.
Q: You have alluded in public statements to the issue of political extremism. How do you assess the potential threat of the extremist movements in the Arab world and in the Gulf specifically?
HIS MAJESTY: I do not think I can do better than to refer you to the recent address I made to my people on our National Day [see Documentation section]. Extremism, no matter of what type, must be firmly rejected by all thinking people. All should abide by the clearly set out rules of religion and law, free from distortion and manipulation. By doing so, by observing the authority of the tried and tested principles by which mankind has learned to live, we can all follow a path of humanity, common sense and progress. This is applicable to the Arab world, the Gulf and indeed everywhere else. I am confident that if this is borne in mind by the peoples of the Arab world, if they firmly resist the arguments and blandishments of those who are ready to distort our religion for political ends, then this threat can never succeed.
Q: You supported President Sadat and the Camp David accords and were the only Arab leader not to break with Egypt afterwards. In December you met with Prime Minister Rabin here in Oman on the first visit by an Israeli head of state to a Gulf country. How do you see the resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli situation evolving?
HIS MAJESTY: In spite of setbacks which, after all, in such a long-standing and complex situation are only to be expected-I feel that steady progress is being made toward an honorable settlement of this problem. It seems to me that this is an example of the recognition of the importance of peaceful negotiation to which I referred earlier. I am optimistic that, given goodwill and understanding, a solution can eventually be reached which will be honorable to the Palestinian people and acceptable to all parties concerned.
Q: To what extent do relations between the GCC countries and Israel depend on Palestinian-Israeli or Syrian-Israeli relations? To what extent do they depend on the U.S.- Arab relationship?
HIS MAJESTY: I think I can say that relations between the GCC countries and Israel naturally depend upon the satisfactory development of those between the Palestinians and Israel and the settlement of other related problems. The Arab countries are as one in their determination that a settlement honorable and lastingly satisfactory to the Palestinian people must be obtained. I am certain that the United States has an important role to play in using its influence to bring this about.
Q: How do you foresee relations evolving between Israel and the rest of the GCC states? Do you anticipate that the other GCC countries will be encouraged by Oman's example?
HIS MAJESTY: Our brother states of the GCC will determine their own attitudes in this connection, but I am sure that goodwill will always be reciprocated by them. I do not think one should talk in terms of other GCC countries being encouraged by Oman's example: We are all unanimous in our policies to encourage a peaceful and honorable solution to this problem, and it would be erroneous to infer that Oman's attitude in any way differs from that of its brothers of the GCC.