The Sultanate of Oman has a long history that began in the pre-Christian era, and is the setting of the Sindbad stories from the Arabian Nights. Oman also has deep connections with Japan; its territorial waters include the Strait of Hormuz, a strategic sea lane. Toshio Motoya spoke with His Excellency Mr. Khalid bin Hashil Al-Muslahi, the Omani Ambassador, about topics including Oman’s history, culture, natural features, and future relations with Japan.
Motoya Thank you for joining me on Big Talk today. In addition, thank you for coming to the APA Group’s New Year party that was recently held at Kasuikyo in Kaga Katayamazu Onsen.
Muslahi It was a very enjoyable New Year party. Thank you for inviting me.
Motoya What did you think of Kasuikyo? It’s the APA Group’s only Japanese-style ryokan (inn).
Muslahi With the snow falling, it was a wonderful atmosphere. It’s also snowing in Tokyo today, and it feels like the white snow somehow purifies us.
Motoya Japanese people have the impression of Oman, which is located in the Middle East, as being an extremely hot country. Do you have any opportunities to see snow there?
Muslahi Oman has many different elevations. The highest peak is more than 3,000 meters tall, so you can see snow there in the winter.
Motoya I didn’t know that! Oman is situated on the Arabian Peninsula, facing the Strait of Hormuz, a sea lane that is a very important route. Because Japan is dependent on oil imported via sea lanes, Oman definitely has close ties with Japan. Yet Japanese people don’t know much about Oman.
Muslahi Oman and Japan share 400 years of historical friendly contacts, and last year we celebrated our 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations. Furthermore, the grandfather of His Majesty the Sultan came to Japan in 1935 after his abdication. He married a Japanese woman and lived in Kobe. They had a princess, and she still happily lives in Oman.
Motoya I didn’t know that we share such a deep relationship!
Muslahi Generally, geographer Shigetaka Shiga is said to be the first Japanese official to visit Oman in 1924. But it is assumed that Petro Kibe, a Japanese Christian priest, stopped at Muscat on his way to Jerusalem in 1619.
Motoya In other words, there’s a long history to the relationship between the two countries. I invited you here so that you could tell me, and the readers, about all sorts of things.
Muslahi I understand. Oman’s territory is approximately 309,000 square kilometers – around 85% the size of Japan’s. The population is small, at roughly 2.9 million people. The country is divided into 11 districts. Most of the country is desert but there are many green areas caused by oases, and agriculture is prosperous. The northern part of the country, including the capital city of Muscat, has a hot and humid climate during the summer. In particular, the maximum temperature from June to August reaches 40 degrees Celsius sometimes. However, the weather from September to April is from 10 to 30 degrees, so it’s very comfortable. Conversely, the maximum temperature in the Dhofar area in the southern part of the country is around 30 degrees and below during the summer. The southern region is visited by more than 200,000 tourists each year from neighboring Gulf Countries.
Motoya I’m surprised to hear the temperatures in the south are so low.
Muslahi Oman has four UNESCO World Heritage Sites and is known throughout history as the “Land of Frankincense.” The culture of incense is still alive in the Middle East, and Oman is known as the world’s foremost production area for frankincense. Frankincense is a tree resin. It has a wonderful smell, so much that it is utilized as an ingredient in high-grade perfumes. It has been used since Ancient Egypt and was one of the gifts given to Jesus Christ by the Three Wise Men of the East. Oman was the last stop on the Silk Road, and frankincense was brought to Japan via that route.
Motoya I’ve smelled frankincense before. It was very sweet and pleasant.
Muslahi Oman is on the ocean and has 3,500 kilometers of coastlines. For that reason, the fishing industry is very prosperous. Oman is the third largest fish exporter to Japan in the Middle East and North Africa after Morocco and Mauritania. Many types of fish such as tuna are exported to Japan. As for agricultural produce, Oman is the fourth largest exporter to Japan from the Middle East and North Africa. We export various kinds of vegetables and fruits to Japan; the biggest crops are green beans and dates.
Motoya I visited Bahrain last year. I hear that Bahrain was the first of the Gulf Countries where oil was found. When was oil discovered in Oman?
Muslahi In the late 1960s. Oman is a reliable energy supplier to Japan, and Japan imported 39 million barrels of crude oil from Oman in 2012, amounting to 3% of its total imports. We also export natural gas to Japan. Japan imported 5% of its total liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Oman in 2012, of around four million tons of LNG.
Motoya The oil exported by countries such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar is always passed through the Strait of Hormuz. The Musandam Peninsula, which juts out into the Strait of Hormuz, is an enclave that is part of Oman’s territory. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the safety of the strait depends on Oman.
Muslahi We do our part to ensure the safe passage of ships through the strait. However, the oil exported from Oman does not need to pass through the Strait of Hormuz (laughs). We have good relations with the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Forces and we welcome Japanese vessels at Omani ports frequently.
Motoya The Strait of Hormuz is a location of conflict with Iran, so the United States is overly concerned with it. The U.S. Fifth Fleet, which has its headquarters in Bahrain, is also keeping a watchful eye on this location.
Muslahi The foundation of Oman’s diplomacy is a good-neighbor policy, and we have a consistent non-alignment policy as well.
Motoya These days, all countries have their own interests. There are many disputes, so I think it’s wonderful to work towards regional stability through good-neighbor diplomacy. However, in Japan many people have the mistaken impression that Oman is a stronghold for pirates…
Muslahi That’s not true. The pirates are off the coast of Somalia, in Africa. We are taking various measures with the international community to ensure they can’t approach the Strait of Hormuz. On a different subject, I think many people in Japan know the stories of Sinbad’s adventures. His birth place is Sohar, a port town in Oman.
Motoya I wasn’t aware of that. We Japanese have the bad habit of assuming the Middle East and North Africa are exactly the same; I think we should reflect on this. So the ocean areas near Oman are safe?
Muslahi Yes, they are safe.
Motoya I see. Incidentally, what denomination of Islam is the most prevalent in Oman?
Muslahi Oman is like a school of Islam. Ibadi is the mainstream, but there are also the Sunni and Shia sects. They co-exist in complete harmony; we never had any issues between the denominations, and marriage between different denominations is also common.
Motoya That’s wonderful. Rapid economic growth took place after Qaboos bin Said al Said, the current sultan, was enthroned. That was in 1970, so this is the 43rd year of his reign.
Muslahi His Majesty Sultan Qaboos lead an era of renaissance in Oman from 1970 and made Oman a modern state.
Motoya He also built close relationships with the members of the GCC.
Muslahi Cooperation is being strengthened between the six GCC countries (the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia). Now, we can travel between these countries without a passport, using ID cards only. We also have a common market and free trade area. Our people receive the same treatment as citizens in each country.
Motoya That’s the same format as the EU. You’re rapidly promoting a borderless region.
Muslahi Yes, that is correct.
Motoya During my visit to Bahrain, I was most surprised by the total lack of income and corporate taxes. What is the situation in Oman?
Muslahi There are taxes on corporations, but individuals do not pay any income taxes. Furthermore, there are special cases in which a grace period is given for several years after establishing a company.
Motoya It sounds like an environment where it is easy to start businesses.
Muslahi Yes. Right now, Oman is devoting lots of effort to the development of the tourism industry. Because the country is blessed with many tourism resources, such as historical sites and natural beauty, we are looking for parties that will develop these things. There are already many hotels and resorts built in the country, but as the number of tourists is increasing, we need to increase this number even more. In this way, we are attempting to develop tourism.
Motoya I’ve heard that Bahrain has 40 years of reserves. Does the same apply to Oman?
Muslahi According to statistics, the figure might be 40 years. But that actually hasn’t changed since 1970. This refers to the amount remaining that has been verified; the amount of oil that can be mined is increasing due to the constant discovery of new reserves and technological advancements, so the amount of reserves hasn’t changed.
Motoya Is that so? Incidentally, right now I think the world is concerned that Israel is plotting to attack Iran as a response to its nuclear weapons. Iran is located on the opposite shore between the Strait of Hormuz – is Oman worried about this?
Muslahi Personally, I don’t think Israel will carry out such an attack.
Motoya I feel it’s very possible that Iran would become a nuclear state if that happened. Does Oman approve of this?
Muslahi Oman is against nuclear weapons.
Motoya In Japan’s case, all of our neighboring countries – including the U.S., China, North Korea, and Russia – have nuclear arms. China aimed a fire-control radar at a Japanese Self-Defense Force ship near the Senkaku Islands; the background of this as well is the power of nuclear weapons. In 2010, North Korea bombed Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island. It has also become a nuclear state by carrying out nuclear testing in 2006 and 2009. It was said all over that the bombardment was directed by Jim Jong-un – he became the most powerful person in North Korea due to the glory from this “achievement.” In the same way, Xi Jinping is attempting to gain glory by using military power to place pressure on Japan, and to strengthen his authority as China’s supreme leader. It is dangerous to carry out military movements against a country that possesses nuclear weapons, so perhaps he thinks it will be safe to menace Japan – which has none – to some degree. Japan’s Self-Defense Forces are actually superior to China’s army in terms of navy and air power, but China is displaying a self-assured attitude because Japan lacks nuclear weapons.
Muslahi I am sure that Japan will resolve these issues in a peaceful manner.
Motoya I doubt there are any countries that would use nuclear weapons. After all, they are weapons for intimidating others. For example, Israel will not state whether or not it has nuclear weapons. But its neighboring countries think that Israel has nuclear weapons, so a fifth Arab-Israeli war has been avoided. Conversely, Israel has been able to take confident action – such as aerial bombing in the Gaza Strip – exactly because of this background of nuclear authority. I think power is brought about just by having nuclear weapons.
Muslahi I hope that the Middle East should become a nuclear-weapons-free-zone. Oman and Japan support this. Because Oman is a country that works to remove confrontation through dialogues, we hope to resolve problems via diplomacy, not weapons.
Motoya I think that’s an extremely intelligent policy. But if Iran gains nuclear arms, people say that Saudi Arabia will be next. The “balance of power” principle is certainly correct; having a balance in each region puts checks on wars. In the past nuclear weapons spread in order to ensure equilibrium, starting with the U.S. and followed by the Soviet Union, China, India, and Pakistan, all in opposition to the previous country. According to this logic, in East Asia the best way to have regional stability would be for Japan to possess nuclear weapons. Since North Korea has obtained nuclear weapons, it’s starting to seem like even the U.S. would permit this.
Muslahi Japan’s nuclear technologies are used peacefully. The Gulf Countries are all signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Oman is not considering the introduction of nuclear power generation.
Motoya I think the Gulf Countries have a wonderful stance regarding nuclear weapons. However, in Japan’s case we may have no choice but to possess nuclear arms if China continues its current provocation. Up until now Japan has preserved its three antinuclear principles, but the public opinion is changing steadily. Based on China’s unyielding posture, some people are even saying that Japan should revise its constitution and acquire nuclear arms. Ironically, Japan may be able to take steps down the road towards becoming a normal country thanks to China. In any case, I think China should diligently analyze the responses inside Japan, and should be careful of provoking Japan in vain. Incidentally, I ask two things of the ambassadors from all countries. These are support for holding the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, and for cooperation regarding the abolishment of the “former enemy” clause in the UN Charter.
Muslahi I hope Tokyo will be successful in its bid to host the Olympic Games. As for the former enemy clause, it is better to discuss this at the United Nations, not here.
Motoya I agree. In the past Japan paid 20% of the contributions to the UN, so the Ministry of Foreign Affairs needs to state its claims more accurately.
Muslahi Many countries recognize that Japan has made great contributions to the UN and to supporting the development in many countries.
Motoya Thank you very much. Japanese people need to learn more about how the world thinks of Japan. At the end of the interview I always ask for a “word for the youth.”
Muslahi To Japanese young people, I would like to say that they should fully protect the wonderful traditions, spirits, and cultures of their parents’ generation. It is because of these things that Japan is respected throughout the world.
Motoya Japan had many more wonderful things in the past, but we are losing these. One hopes they will not decrease any more, and that people will continue to possess such things. Thank you for speaking with me about many interesting topics today.
Muslahi Thank you very much.
Khalid bin Hashil Al-Muslahi
Born in 1967. Majored in Economics in the United Kingdom. Worked at the foreign minister’s office and the foreign undersecretary’s office. Since February 2008, has served as ambassador of the Sultanate of Oman to Japan. Has also served as non-resident ambassador to Australia since April 2009 and to New Zealand since March 2010.