The prospect of conflict in Iraq and what will follow it hangs like a spectre over the Gulf, as it does the rest of the world. Oman's Minister of Information Hamed Al Rashidi told The Middle East late last year that while hoping for the best, Omanis were prepared for the worst. With war now all but upon us, Omanis continue to operate with the same sang-froid. Naturally, conversation in Muscat is dominated by events in Baghdad but otherwise, life goes on much the same. That is not to say that Oman is not involved in regional events. It has been a major player in the Gulf Cooperation Council since its inception and is a valued contributor to a range of regional organisations. However, its declared long-term policy of noninterference in the political affairs of its neighbours and the fact war will not be taking place on Oman's borders, allows it increased room for manoeuvre and, perhaps, an opportunity to be more objective about the conflicting international rhetoric.
Part of Oman's charm, as a country and a political entity, is that it is does not try to emulate either its oil rich Gulf neighbours or the West, appearing comfortable with its regional and international role. Continued economic and social development is high on the country's list of priorities but Oman is happy to take measured steps in a pre-determined direction, to arrive at its declared destination on schedule. There is no frenetic jostling or jockeying for position, no claims to have built higher, faster or more expensively than anyone else. Oman adopts a considered and systematic approach to moving forward, introducing change at a pace people and systems are able to deal with. The country has sometimes been referred to as following a policy of "prudent housekeeping" and, while it is true the government has shown no predilection for jumping headlong in to untested waters, laudable achievements have been made in Oman since Sultan Qaboos bin Said came to power in 1970.
Until oil production began in 1967, Oman's exports were largely composed of dates, and other fruits, fish, tobacco, and vegetables. Following a bloodless coup in July 1970, in which his father Sultan Said was deposed, Qaboos inherited the leadership of a desert backwater with all the classic features of an underdeveloped country. The sultanate was without all but the most rudimentary services and infrastructure. There were few roads, schools and hospitals. Following the commercial exploitation of oil in the mid-1970s and a more forward looking leadership, the economy started witnessing a noticeable transformation as oil became the mainstay of the economy and Oman's chief source of income.
Today, Oman boasts an open, liberal economy and a thriving manufacturing sector. Its physical infrastructure and public services are ranked among the best in the developing regions and the World Health Organisation (WHO) places Oman in the top 10 nations in terms of the efficient allocation of healthcare resources. The economy has expanded by a startling 76% over the last decade, while the increase in growth domestic product (GDP) between 1997 and 2001, averaged a healthy 4.2% a year, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Economic diversification, privatisation and Omanisation are the cornerstones of the country's ongoing development plan. Diversification...