Located at a point connecting Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, the Sultanate of Oman has a long history that started before the Common Era. It even built a vast maritime empire in the past. Toshio Motoya spoke with H. E. Dr. Mohamed Said Al Busaidi, ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary of the Sultanate of Oman to Japan, about Oman’s long history, foreign policy for building good relationships with all countries, points of commonality with Japan, and other topics.
(M) Thank you for joining me on Big Talk today. I have visited your embassy and enjoyed a delicious meal made by your wife. She is a talented cook.
(A) Thank you for inviting me. Yes, I am very happy because I married a great woman who can cook so well (laughs).
(M) I’ve wanted to have you on Big Talk for some time, and we’ve finally made this happen. In Japan, we have the impression that the Middle East is an area with many uprisings. However, I’ve heard that Oman is a peaceful country with no wars or civil wars. I’d like to visit when the COVID-19 pandemic ends. I think most readers of Apple Town, this magazine, don’t know very much about Oman. I hope you will teach me and our readers many things about Oman today.
(A) Oman is an extremely peaceful country. We are not involved in any border conflicts, and we have excellent relations with our neighboring nations. His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said, the former Sultan of Oman, was a very wise man who focused from an early stage on forming good relationships with the whole world, as well as our neighboring countries, while keeping Oman out of all sorts of wars. That is why we have enjoyed peace for so many years. His Majesty Sultan Qaboos passed away in January 2020 and was succeeded by His Majesty Sultan Haitham bin Tarik, who is committed to exactly the same path of peace. Japanese Prime Minster Shinzo Abe visited Oman on two occasions, in January 2014 and January 2020. He met with His Majesty Sultan Qaboos during his first visit. He met with His Majesty Sultan Haitham bin Tarik, the current Sultan, during his second visit and shared a message of condolence regarding the late His Majesty Sultan Qaboos.
(M) Before Abe became prime minister, I was the vice-chair of an association working to make him prime minister. In his second stint as prime minister he implemented measures for Japan’s sake and founded a long-term government, so it was extremely unfortunate that he had to step down when he fell ill once again. Would you please start by sharing some basic information about Oman?
(A) Yes. Oman is located on the eastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula and has a long coastline on the Sea of Oman and Arabian Sea. Oman is about 85% the size of Japan. Our population is small at roughly 4.5 million people. Muscat, the capital, has a long history as a port city. The official language is Arabic and the religion is Islam. Oman is an absolute monarchy led by the Sultan. His Majesty Sultan Qaboos took the throne in 1970 and grew Oman into a modern nation through measures such as abandoning the isolationism of the recent past, joining the United Nations, promoting economic growth, and establishing the Council of Oman. His Majesty also went on an annual Meet-the-People tour, which made the government exceedingly efficient at understanding the needs of the people.
(M) Knowing you, I can imagine that Oman is a stable, affluent country. I’m sure that’s partly due to the production of petroleum and natural gas.
(A) Oman’s confirmed crude oil reserves total 4.5 billion barrels, and our confirmed natural gas reserves total 24 trillion cubic meters. These will last for many years to come at the current production rate. There are many oil-producing nations on the Arabian Peninsula. People say the six Gulf countries (the Kingdom of Bahrain, State of Kuwait, Sultanate of Oman, State of Qatar, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates [UAE]) alone are home to 30% of the world’s crude oil reserves. However, Oman is working to diversify its economy, rather than depending only on petroleum and natural gas. I think tourism will become one part of this. Oman is one of the world’s oldest countries. In fact, it is also the oldest independent nation in the Arab world. The Archaeological Sites of Bat, Al-Khutm and Al-Ayn, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, demonstrates that copper was mined in this area from 2,000 to 3,000 BC, and that trade took place with Mesopotamia. There are also over 500 historical fortresses in Oman, an example of which is Bahla Fort, one of many UNESCO World Heritage Sites found in Oman. This magnificent city was built by an oasis from the 12th to 15th centuries, and is surrounded by a wall roughly 13 kilometers long.
(M) I’ve heard about the Omani Empire, a vast maritime empire.
(A) Yes, Omani ports have long been important trade centers, with a history going back more than 2,000 years. Limited parts came under Portuguese dominion at one point, but afterwards from the mid-17th century until the 19th century Oman built a major empire spanning across the region. Trade took place on the “Maritime Silk Road” from Oman to Asia, and also reaching China from around the 2nd century. There are traces of this all over. The Maritime Experiential Museum in Singapore, a facility about the history of the Maritime Silk Road, has a wooden dhow used for trading that was built in Oman, sailed to Singapore, and gifted to the museum.
(M) The Arab world was more technologically and culturally advanced until the Middle Ages. All sorts of things were brought to Europe via trade. People tend to think that culture flowed from Europe to the Middle East, but that’s not accurate in every era.
(A) I agree.
(M) Is it true that underground resources were developed in the modern period, putting Oman on the path to becoming an oil-producing nation?
(A) That is just one facet of Oman, a country with many different aspects. You can’t understand a book just by reading one page. You have to read the entire text. I hope that people will see other parts of Oman as well, including its history and current efforts.
(M) Does Oman have a long-established relationship with Japan?
(A) Japan recognized Oman as a nation in 1971, right after Oman ended its isolation policy in 1970. The diplomatic relationship was formed in 1972. The year 2022 will mark the 50th anniversary of this relationship and will be a special year for both Japan and Oman. There is also another interesting connection between Oman and Japan. His Majesty Sultan Taimur bin Feisal, the grandfather of both His Majesty Sultan Qaboos and His Majesty Sultan Haitham bin Tarik, abdicated the throne in 1932 in his forties to his son. His Majesty Sultan Taimur visited Japan in 1935, where he later happily married a Japanese woman and had a daughter with her. Her Highness the daughter of Sultan Taimur currently lives in Oman.
(M) My impression is that Oman also has a long ruling dynasty, just like Japan.
(A) Yes, the current Al Busaidi dynasty was established in 1744. And like Japan, Oman has learned many lessons from its history and is a mature nation. Oman’s national policies greatly resemble those of Japan. We believe in maintaining good relations and peace. We believe that wars do not bring sustainable solutions but hardship, hence we always seek to resolve disputes through dialogue and diplomacy.
(M) I agree.
(A) If you look at a map, you will see that Oman is located at a strategic point connecting Europe, Africa, and Asia. We feel extremely fortunate to be located at this most strategically important location on the globe. Because Oman is on the ocean, we enjoy unfettered access and connection to the world. This is one reason why historically and today Oman has maintained good relationships with people across the world and continues to work on strengthening its trade and other economic relations with other nations. We also leverage this strategic position to take actions benefitting not only Oman, but also the many other countries we are friendly with.
(M) I am greatly impressed by that attitude. It seems like something only an affluent country would consider, and that it would be hard for a poor country to think that way.
(A) That may be true. However, Oman’s wealth is not only limited to petroleum and natural gas; we believe our people are our true assets. Omani citizens are highly educated, and a large percentage has completed higher education. This makes me very proud.
(M) Is that because His Majesty Sultan Qaboos prioritized education?
(A) He did, and so does the current Sultan. I think Oman is so fortunate to have such gentle, kind Sultans.
(M) The Gulf countries, including the Arabian Peninsula, have been developed since petroleum and natural gas were discovered around World War II. This profit has made them rich. What were Oman’s main industries before the discovery of petroleum?
(A) As I mentioned, Oman is a maritime country at a strategic point between Asia, Africa, and Europe. Trade flourished for this reason. I think frankincense is our most famous export. This milky-white resin is secreted by the frankincense tree and has long been prized as a costly incense and medicine. At one point in history it was more expensive than the equivalent weight of gold. Frankincense from the Dhofar region is regarded as particularly high quality. It has been exported to Europe and Asia as an important trade item for thousands of years. The Land of Frankincense is a UNESCO World Heritage Site related to the frankincense trade in Dhofar. We also harvest lemons and dates. From the sea we produce tuna, lobster, octopus, and many other types of marine products along Oman’s longer than 3,000-kilometer coastline. Dried fish have been exported from Oman since ancient times. Oman is also known as the oldest date palm production area.
(M) What is Oman’s climate like?
(A) Many people think that all Middle Eastern countries are nothing but desert, but it actually snows in some areas such as Jebel Akhdar, a mountain almost 3,000 meters tall (its name means “The Green Mountain”). You can drive 1.5 hours from the capital to this mountainous area that can reach 20°C during the summer months. There are luxury resort hotels at an elevation of almost 3,000 meters on a sheer cliff. If you fly one hour to the south, the temperature might be 18°C in the summer. The southern part of the country has a monsoon climate with lush greenery, as well as rivers, waterfalls, and lakes. The successful and popular port of Salalah and free zone can be found there. If you drive five hours to the south of the capital you reach the Duqm area. Its white sand beaches, blue to turquoise waters, amazing rock formations, and moderate temperatures that do not exceed 33°C in the summer make it a popular developing tourist destination, with an emphasis on its strategically developed mega-project establishing an economic free area that includes massive harbors; a state-of-the-art dry dock; environmentally friendly, ultramodern industrial development areas; and amazing investment opportunities. The best time for sightseeing in Muscat and other parts of the northern area is the dry season from November to March. The summer is verdantly green in the Dhofar region, making it the best time to visit. The temperature there is around 18°C to 20°C from June to August.
(M) It sounds like the mountainous regions are quite cool, and that Oman isn’t hot all year round.
(A) Of course it is hot in most places, especially in some parts of the desert, but there are many green, cool, and temperate places as well. Some areas in Muscat and many other regions are designated as nature preserves to protect the rich nature as well as many varieties of flora and fauna.
(M) Are there any famous resorts that draw European tourists?
(A) There are resorts in many different locations. These include a white-walled seaside hotel in Muscat; a Bedouin-style resort right in the middle of the Wahiba Sands; and a secluded resort surrounded by steep, rocky mountains and the ocean. I’ll send you a list. Although there are numerous extravagant resorts, we don’t have many business hotels like APA Hotel. I hope this interview in Apple Town will inform many Japanese people about Oman and inspire them to visit for sightseeing, business, or investment. I strongly recommend Oman to Japanese people for several reasons. Omanis and Japanese are surprisingly similar: extremely modest, considerate, and kind, and able to work together for a common cause when necessary.
(M) That’s wonderful. I definitely want to visit Oman and speak with many people there.
(A) I certainly hope you do so! I also welcome you to explore the possibility of introducing APA Hotels to Oman, and suggest studying the potential for building APA Resorts that can cater to Japanese tourists traveling to Oman.
(M) Oman shares borders with the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. Japan is close to South Korea and China. My view is that people of different countries have different ways of thinking, which can cause friction between neighboring countries. What about Oman?
(A) Oman is very unique when it comes to that point. We view all of our neighbors as our brothers and have good relationships with them.
(M) Do you have such close, cooperative relations with your neighbors because you belong to federations of countries?
(A) We have always maintained good relations with our neighbors, and eventually the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was founded in 1981. It’s made up of six countries including the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Oman. We also joined the League of Arab States in 1971, which is composed of 21 states and one institution and was established in 1945. Oman sees its fellow Arab states as close brothers, and we are always thinking about how to co-exist and prosper together in a friendly way.
(M) I imagine there are many social differences between these Arab countries, such as wealth disparities caused by petroleum production amounts.
(A) Every nation is facing its own challenges, but they all have wonderful histories. Every country across the world has gone through difficult times and recovered vigorously from them. That’s why we do not focus overmuch on the current situations; we believe in respecting each other and cultivating friendship while building relationships. Rather than physical things, true value comes from psychological connections.
(M) That’s a wonderful way of thinking, but I don’t think it’s so simple in the case of the relationships between Japan, South Korea, and China…
(A) I think of relationships between nations in terms of hands and fingers. Even if they have different shapes, every finger is important to the hand as a whole. Countries do not necessarily have to agree, but mutual respect is a principle that must be upheld without fail.
(M) I agree. Do the wealthier Arab nations help the poorer ones?
(A) They provide various types of support, but don’t actively announce it in the media very often. This support is also always in line with UN programs.
(M) So they are prioritizing aid over publicity?
(A) We think it’s wonderful when countries receiving this aid conquer their difficult circumstances and are able to recover. Oman highly esteems Japan for overcoming many trials, and then achieving a miracle by becoming so affluent.
(M) Although Japan lacks resources, we have amassed assets and wealth as a manufacturing superpower thanks to our human ideas and technologies.
(A) Japan is a truly wonderful nation. The Japanese miracle still provides inspiration and hope to the world.
(M) I believe that education is Japan’s strength. Fundamental education was carried out at clan and temple schools since the Edo Period, and became a foundation for the high educational level from the Meiji Period on. We still place priority on education today. I think this is why all Japanese people can quickly do mental arithmetic to promptly calculate change.
(A) I agree entirely. Oman and the other Middle Eastern countries also place great importance on education. In his first speech in 1970, His Majesty Sultan Qaboos said “Let there be learning, even under the shade of trees.” He emphasized that nothing should dampen our strong motivation to become educated. Oman had only two schools conducting fundamental education at that point, and it had no universities, which are institutions of higher education. However, we have thousands of schools and dozens of universities today. All Omanis feel great pride about this.
(M) It’s important for a nation to have pride. At the end of the interview, I always ask for a “word for the youth.”
(A) People tend to get confused and think that having money means one is wealthy. However, some people are wealthy even though they are poor. True wealth – which is the source of affluence – is knowledge cultivated through sustained learning. You can steal money, but you cannot steal knowledge. Knowledge obtained through education develops a logical spirit of believing in science, which is why I think Japan has been so successful. When I met you and the president of APA Hotel, I could tell that you both have spiritual affluence as well. I feel that you and the employees who work for you are all affluent. I believe that is true wealth.
(M) Thank you for sharing such a wonderful discussion with me today.
(A) Thank you.
H.E. Dr. Mohamed Said Al Busaidi
Born in 1968. Earned a B.Sc. in Physics from Sultan Qaboos University (SQU) in 1992; an M.S. in Physics from Pennsylvania State University in 1995; and a Ph.D. in Physics from Loughborough University, UK in 2001. Started his career as an academic at SQU in 1992. Joined the Foreign Ministry in 2009 and served in positions such as ambassador of the Peaceful Nuclear Technology Office and chief of the North American Affairs Department. Became ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary of the Sultanate of Oman to Japan in December 2018, ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary to Australia (non-resident) in February 2021, and ambassador-designate to New Zealand (non-resident) in May 2021.