Oman – Land of the Ancient, the Beautiful, and the Cosmopolitan

Oman Study MissionBack in March, A.C.E. helped coordinate a Study Mission to Oman in conjunction with our former student and our good friend, Mr. Rashid Al-Kiyumi of Oman. Below is the final Post Trip Report. To view an entire collection of photos from the Mission, click here.

Executive Summary:

Associates in Cultural Exchange, and Mr. Rashid Al-Kiyumi of Oman partnered together to provide a post trip to Oman for 15 delegates from the Seattle Study Mission to the UAE. The trip commenced with an overland trip from Dubai to Muscat, Oman, on March 14, and included an all day excursion into the interior of Oman on the 15th, a coastal voyage, a banquet on the campus of Sultan Qaboos University (the national university) hosted by His Excellency Dr. Ali Al-Bemani, Vice-Chancellor of the university, and tours of the capital city. Several high-level presentations were given by the Ministry of Fisheries Wealth, the Omani Center for Investment Promotion and Export Development, and the Child Care Center of Sultan Qaboos University. These included discussion of the Children’s Library project. The primary objective of the trip was to familiarize delegates with the “heart of Arabia” so as to gain insights into the authentic culture and history of the region, as well as to understand the modern-day potential for developing ties between the Greater Seattle region and Oman.

Day 1 (Saturday, March 14)

Our 15 delegates were greeted at the Shangri-La Hotel in Dubai by Rashid Al-Kiyumi, Director of Center for Community Service & Continuing Education for Sultan Qaboos University the national university of Oman, and his friend retired Brigadier General Abdul Wahab Bin Abdul Karim Al-Balushi, Royal Oman Police. We boarded the bus and headed for Muscat, the capital of Oman. That morning we also picked up several copies of local Arabic language newspapers in which the Seattle delegation’s visit to Dubai was well documented. So we set off for Oman on a high note.

An hour later the bus pulled in to the boarder station where our visas were processed. The head of the boarder post was well acquainted with General Abdul Wahab and wanted to have us all for tea. But we lacked the time to visit and on we went into Oman.

Several hours later we arrived at the Al Suwadi Resort Hotel and were joined by Mohamed Ali Al-Maawali, Photographer. We were provided a sumptuous buffet of local delicacies and we began to feel at home in Oman immediately. The view of Suwadi beach was enticing with local fisherman transporting tourists out to neighboring islands for a stroll and the temperature balmy. Despite our desire to stay and enjoy the area, it was time to move on.

We arrived at the Grand Hyatt Hotel hotel in the late afternoon and after a brief rest headed across Muscat for dinner at the Shangrila resort. This signature Omani resort is situated a ways outside Muscat on the Gulf of Oman and is comprised of three unique hotels. The cuisine is unsurpassed and the beach exquisite.

Day 2 (Sunday, March 15)

Our first full day in Oman was to be an exploration of the Interior (called “Dakhilia”) specially arranged by the Ministry of Tourism for our benefit. We left Muscat by bus on the major highway toward the main city of Nizwa. Our tour began, guided by Mr. Suleiman Al-Rawahi, Director of the Cultural Center Project of Sultan Qaboos University, and Mohammed Ali Al-Hinai, Director of Administration of the Centre of Community Services & Continuing Education of Sultan Qaboos University, with a visit to the most important political structure in the region, Al Jabreen Castle, which was the seat of power for centuries. This classic Arabian outpost boasts all the important features of a desert fortification including design for passive cooling of lower floors, means of defense using boiling date juice or oil, and protected water supplies (called a “falaj”).

Inside Al Hoota CaveFrom the castle we went into the hills a ways to visit the largest and most impressive cavern in Oman, called Al Hoota Cave, with restaurant and Geological Museum. The cavern includes a plethora of unusual formations, and is very well set up for tours. The surprise of the visit was the museum with state-of-the art technology providing interactive displays illustrating Oman’s amazing mountain formations.

After lunch at Al Hoota Cave, we made the short journey through Al Hamra village and up a steep incline to the picturesque hillside village of Misfat Al-Abrieen. As delegates took in the breathtaking scenery and recognized the authenticity of the ancient village life, everyone realized this was a special experience. The experience was best expressed by the comment “I never thought such a place actually existed”. Here and there we caught glimpses of local villagers moving through the narrow hilly paths, very much aware of us. The government has taken pains to preserve this and many other remote villages as a gift to posterity and an attempt to preserve their precious heritage.

After this unforgettable experience, we headed downhill and over to the center of Nizwa itself. With just enough time remaining for some shopping in the traditional Souq, delegates fanned out and began bargaining. We headed back toward Muscat as the sun created a poetic panorama over the muted desert scene.

Already a full day behind us, on arrival back at our hotel it was time for an Omani Cultural Dinner at the Bustan Palace Hotel complete with traditionally-dressed dancers and singers serenading us, seated as we were in Bedouin style on carpets and pillows.

Day 3 (Monday, March 16)

Day 3 was primarily an opportunity to experience and learn about the marine resources of Oman with it’s 1500-mile coastline and abundant fisheries. We began with an official visit to and presentation by the Ministry of Fisheries Wealth, presided by Undersecretary Dr. Hamed Said Al-Oufi, and the Director General of Administration & Finance, Mr. Mahmood Y. Al-Dhuhli. The presentation emphasized Oman’s commitment to maintain its fisheries as a livelihood for thousands of small businessmen who fish in the traditional manner and serve the local markets as well for exporting to the GCC countries. This is both an economic and cultural priority for Oman and an impressive model for other developing countries. Oman is the second largest producer of fish exports in the Middle East and comparatively healthy in its sustainability, despite having to contend increasingly with unauthorized international fishing ships offshore who deplete the stocks. Following the formal presentation the two sides began a lively discussion involving everyone at the conference table, indicating a genuine and enthusiastic engagement on all sides.

After returning to the hotel it was time for some rest and relaxation aboard the Sultan Qaboos University official yacht which took our group on a 4-hour coastal cruise. The views of the coastline are stupendous as the geological upthrust of Oman’s mountains is plainly evident from the sea, and there are almost no people to be seen anywhere on the coast including the pristine beach where we moored and swam. On board we enjoyed an Arabic picnic, the tropical weather, and the good company of the Omani crew and our Omani hosts.

At Sultan Qaboos UniversityIn the evening we toured the Sultan Qaboos University campus, where we walked through the newest development on campus – the $56-million Cultural Center – which was overseen from by our host Mr. Rashid Al-Kiyumi from its inception 8 years ago. We then dropped into the Child Care Center where we met the Center Director Dr. Samira Moosa who gave us a briefing about the Children’s Library project now in development. The non-profit library foundation established to raise the money intends to rely primarily on private support in order to insure its independence and set a precedent for private philanthropy. The Rotarians in our group took special note of this project for its potential as a joint project of Rotary in the Greater Seattle area.

The evening was capped with a Gala Dinner Reception at Sultan Qaboos University hosted by His Excellency Dr. Ali Al-Bemani, Vice-Chancellor of the university and many of his senior colleagues, community leaders, and Omani alumni from universities and training programs in the Greater Seattle Area since the 1980s. The alumni totaled over 50 and were an impressive gathering of top professional Omani talent who offer Seattle terrific linkages into the country of Oman due to their personal experience living and studying in Western Washington. Programs and Universities where these students attended include Associates in Cultural Exchange’s Group Programs (the majority were sent by Sultan Qaboos University in summer of 2005 and 2006 for short term study tours), and in earlier years (prior to 9/11) University of Washington, Seattle Pacific University, University of Puget Sound, and Pacific Lutheran University. Omani students have been studying in the Greater Seattle area for over 30 years and were pioneers in this regard among Gulf countries despite Oman’s modest economic strength.

Day 4 (Tuesday, March 17)

Too soon we arrived at Day 4, our final day in Oman. We began the day with an “insider” presentation at the Omani Centre for Investment Promotion & Export Development (OCIPED) by Director Salem Ben Nasser Al Ismaily. Mr. Al Ismaily provided us with an overview of Oman’s impressive accountability and oversight of its economy and financial systems, one that the West might wish to emulate! But more importantly, he gave us privileged insights into the worldview of Omani leaders and their position on global affairs, a view rarely heard or understood in the U.S. His own personal journey of interactions with the U.S. was deeply moving and left a lasting impression on everyone. We came away knowing we had been allowed on the “inside” in a way rarely afforded to visiting delegations of this type. One of the key takeaways was the fact that Arab leaders in the region very much want the U.S. to engage constructively with Iran and be a greater force for stability and peace in the region. Moreover, Arab countries are looking for opportunities to engage with the U.S. without compromising their own societies’ mores and sensibilities. This is a delicate balance indeed.

During the day delegates visited the old Mattrah Souq on the Corniche, a sight right out of a 1950s Humphrey Bogart movie. We also took advantage of the chance to drop into a local mall and get some rest before the trip home.

The final surprise for the group was most the unusual privilege (for a Western group of this size) of having dinner in the home of our host, Mr. Rashid Al-Kiyumi, along with a tour of the private family quarters and an introduction to his family. The food was delectable, too plentiful (as is usual in hospitable Arabia), and the memory one which will last a lifetime.

Later that evening we departed for home, the time in Oman much like a mirage. It was hard to believe it was over so soon, and was something out of a dream both beautiful and not quite real. Everyone was adamant that they’d have to return to be sure it wasn’t a dream after all.

Strategic Opportunities:

On what was primarily a cultural excursion, it was evident to our group that Oman is a country to be taken seriously on a business and trade level. From its world-class tourist attractions to its petroleum industry and fisheries, Oman has much to offer to global business partners as well as leaders in education, international affairs, and technology (just on the horizon as a major trend in Oman with its proximity to India). Once the global downturn has run its course, Oman will resume its strategic initiatives involving development hubs or “cities” such as Blue City and Wave. Oman has been less affected by the global meltdown than many other fast-developing regions because it has relied far less on hyper development and expatriate expertise. Oman’s economy remains largely self-contained and the petroleum sector remains steady because Oman did not put in place over-ambitious plans based on unrealistic petroleum revenues. Oman also has a real agricultural base, unusual for the Arabian Peninsula, and its people are largely employed in all sectors of the economy. Key opportunities are in the following areas:

a. Bi-Directional Tourism – Omanis are fond of the Pacific Northwest and the population is increasingly mobile. While Omanis typically vacation in Europe or Asia, they are warming up once again (post 9/11) to the idea of visiting or studying in the U.S. With our encouragement, this process may accelerate, and by sending delegations to Oman we can insure a special connection.

b. Ministry of Fisheries – this is a very new ministry, which means that it has new funding and will have significant training needs. Most trainees can be expected to go to the UK or Australia, as these countries are more accessible. But Omanis profess a preference for working with Americans. If we can help make the process easier (especially getting visas and getting through immigration), they are inclined to return to the U.S. for training and this could be significant for the Western Washington economy.

c. Investment – OCIPED is clearly positioned to facilitate FDI in Oman. One could not ask for a better contact in a new country. Those in the U.S. interested in finding opportunities for investment abroad would do well to consider Oman seriously. Oman has a very close relationship with the U.S., is extremely stable politically and economically, and the market is not overrun with competitors.

d. Education – Oman’s population is growing rapidly and the demand for private education services is rising rapidly. Sultan Qaboos University is an excellent institution to begin with, and from SQU one can find influential links to any sector of society as SQU has already produced the newest generation of national leaders.

Summary:

Seattleites who go to Oman will find people who are enlightened, kind, and interested in our region. There are few places in the world one can go and find a readier reception. Everyone who visited Oman in our delegation declared a fervent interest in returning in the future. The “Bridge of Friendship” with Oman has been established and the opportunities are endless for others to cross over and engage further.

4 Comments on “Oman – Land of the Ancient, the Beautiful, and the Cosmopolitan

  1. Pingback: Seattle Trade Development Alliance and A.C.E. in USA Today « ACEBook – Associates in Cultural Exchange Blog

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