Saturday, March 20, 2010

President Abdullah Gül's Oman Visit: Observations from Muscat

As a country located in the chaotic Middle Eastern region, Oman sets a rare example with its stabile structure and neutral policies. Sultan Qaboos defines his country as a “traditional modernization project”, in other words; a rare example of a successful modernization movement, achieved without losing traditional values. While setting an example for modern urbanization, Oman acts responsibly to preserve its social and traditional values. This policy enables Oman to establish good relations with regional states. In this context, it is remarkable to see how Turkey and Oman share a parallel approach towards regional issues. Actually, the parallel foreign policy approach of the two countries explains why they have been through a convergence process for the last 10 years.

Social Structure

Oman has an interesting social structure. Oman’s territory is nearly half the size of Turkey but its population is only 3, 2 million and near 700 thousand of the population are foreigners. Most of the foreigners are of Asian origin but there are also African, European, Iranian and Turkish communities living in Oman. Those communities play an important role in Oman’s economic life. Number of citizens who were born in Oman can be estimated as 2,5 million. The dominant form of Islam in Oman is the Ibadi movement which is a branch of the Islamic Khariji sect. There are various estimations about the number of Ibadis but their percentage is estimated to be 50-60%. There are also a large number of Sunni Arabs and Shiite groups said to have come from Iran. The Sunnis in Oman belong to different denominations and origins. Most of the Hanfite Arabs -which form the 10-15 % of the society-, are living in the coastal line stretching from Sohar to United Arab Emirates (UAE) border. Those are claimed to have converted from Ibadism to Hanefite during the Abbasside Era. On the other hand, the Arabs living in the Dohar region -which is at the south, near the Yemen border- belong to the Shafite sect and define themselves as Yemeni Arabs. They believe themselves to be the descendants of Belkis, the Queen of Sheba whose name is also mentioned in the Holy Koran. It is hard to speak of a social convergence between the Ibadis and these groups who are strictly attached to their tribal structures. Even the students of the country’s sole state university Sultan Qaboos show no marks of such convergence. Each community has their own separate way of social living. Except for these mentioned groups, there is also a small Shiite community living in the country. Hindus also have a place of their own in the Omani social structure. There are no Christian or Jewish citizens in Oman. While defining the social structure of Oman, we have to consider all of the Arab, Persian, Hindu, Belujian and African groups. Ibadi, Hanefite, Shafite and Shiite denominations of Islam as well as Hinduism are the main religious fractions.

Capital Muscat’s population is around 700 thousand. Although the city is located on the coastal line; its mountainous structure prevents the formation of a mono-centric city structure. The city is divided in different districts. The port district –where the covered bazaar is located- stands as the historical center of the city. The neighborhoods at the airport district which lie 25 km east to the center are incorporated in the Capital city during Sultan Qaboos’s reign. Various communities coexist in peace in Muscat which is the most diverse city of the country. During the pre-1960 era, the commercial life in Muscat was dominated by Persian and Belujian families. Those were replaced by powerful Arabic tribes when oil was discovered. After all, Belujian families have great influence within the Ministry of Finance which proves that they still play an important role in business activities and keep their commercial power.

In our interview with the Mayor of Muscat he stated that Muscat has become a modern city in the last 30 years, thanks to the initiatives of Sultan Qaboos. He stated that the urbanization process of Muscat was planned diligently and no one was allowed to construct their houses without permission and planning. According to the Omani law, people cannot own lands or buildings. Everything belongs to the Sultan and people live in houses and lands, granted to them. Authorities emphasize that the related law has never been applied and the Sultan was never seen to ask someone to return the granted estates.

Although many different communities exist together in the country, Sultan Qaboos’s wise policies have maintained a stable structure. Oman, having nothing until 40 years ago, is now a state of prosperity and stability. During his visit to Muscat, President Abdullah Gül praised the process which started in 1970 and is called the Oman Renaissance. Gül stated that the country made a great leap forward in a short period of time.

A Welfare State based upon Oil and Natural Gas Revenues

Although Oman’s natural resources are less than the resources of other Gulf States, 75% of the country’s national revenue comes from oil and natural gas products. Reports indicate that Oman’s oil and natural gas reserves will suffice only for another 20 years. In order to confirm this data, we met with Deputy Minister of Finance Dervish Ali Belujiah in Muscat. He stated that they conduct researches about reserves but results vary due to the use of improving techniques. According to Belujiah, the estimations of 20 years ago indicated that oil and natural gas reserves in Oman would deplete in 20 years but this forecasting went wrong and the reserves show increase in parallel to new research techniques. Here we have to mention that oil exploitation operations in Oman have a higher cost than those in the other Gulf States and multi-national companies prefer to carry on activities in countries with less exploitation costs. Therefore, these companies are expected to steer for Oman -with the help of the improving techniques- when reserves in other countries will deplete. After all, the minister states that they perform forecasting by presuming that the reserves will deplete within 20 years and are trying to diversify economic resources. To this end, they focus on tourism, fishery and industrial fields. As a part of its strategic plans for the coming 20 years, Oman plans to reduce its oil income revenue share from 75% to 10%.

Turkey-Oman Relations: The Omani Perspective

From Oman’s point of view, the improvement of relations with Turkey is a part of Sultan Qaboos’s regional policy perspective and his “good relations with all regional states” vision. By taking the regional facts into consideration, Sultan Qaboos tried to establish a border security net to protect internal security. He also enforced policies based on the “achieving development while protecting traditionalism” approach. Oman is a member of the GCO which is a regional defense and economy cooperation organization. The border issues experienced between Oman and Yemen before Sultan Qaboos’s reign has been settled. Oman does not embrace clear-cut policies towards regional issues (except for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) and chooses to remain neutral towards the internal issues of other states. The Shiite-Sunni polarization which surfaced after the Iraq War and is spearheaded by Saudi Arabia and Iran is one of the issues Oman remained completely neutral. Oman doesn’t take a side in this polarization as the majority of its community neither consists of Shiites nor Sunnis but Ibadis which is another Islamic sect. Besides, real policies demand Oman to remain neutral. With its population of 2,5 million, Oman is located between the two regional powers; Saudi Arabia and Iran. Therefore, neutralism appears to be the wisest policy for Oman to pursue. The authorities we spoke in Oman said that they have good relations with both regional powers. They added that the issues between Arabs and Iranians need to be settled. The authorities have strongly emphasized that Oman doesn’t take sides in the Iranian nuclear crisis.

In that sense, Turkey bears great importance for Oman. Just like Oman, Turkey stands for the peaceful settlement of regional issues and wants the polarization to end. Sultan Qaboos confirms this argument by saying that “the mutual relations between Oman and Turkey are important as both countries pursue similar policies”. But unlike Oman, Turkey has the political and economic power to play an active role in this process. According to the Omani authorities, Turkey is the only state in the Middle Eastern region that has the capability and vision to provide a bridge between the Arab World and Iran. Oman supports Turkey’s UNSC membership and Expo 2015 candidacy. Oman’s role in Turkey’s strategic cooperation with the GCO is also extremely important. Oman made great efforts to hold the recent meeting of the organization in Istanbul. Similar approaches and mutual supports provided a solid base for strong Turkish-Omani relations. Economic relations are the most important aspect of the improving mutual relations which reached a peak with President Gül’s recent visit to Muscat.

The establishment of the joint committee to develop economic and commercial relations between Turkey and Oman in 2004 has paved the way for President Abdullah Gül’s recent visit to Muscat. Turkish companies’ activities in Oman since 2000 led to the establishment of the joint committee. The committee was established as a part of the “Developing Business, Economy and Technical & Scientific Cooperation Agreement” in 2004. The agreement aimed to the development of mutual relations in the fields of business, construction, consultancy services, transport, tourism, culture, archives, agriculture and fishery. As a result, mutual economic relations developed rapidly in the era between 2001 when Turkish companies initiated their activities in Oman and 2004 when the joint committee was established. Turkish companies undertook important construction and infrastructure projects in Oman since then.

Currently there are 20 active Turkish companies in Oman with a total project value of 4 billion Dollars. During President Gül’s visit, Turkish companies were awarded with 2 more project tenders with a total value of 1,5 billion Dollars. This amount is planned to increase up to 8 billion Dollars in the near future. Turkish companies are mainly involved in construction and infrastructure projects including airport, highway, sea port, free zone, shopping center and pipeline constructions. Approximately 100 businessmen have accompanied President Gül during his visit to Muscat. Most of the businessmen reported to have made significant steps towards new business opportunities with their Omani counterparts. Two Turkish companies signed agreements to undertake the construction of a wind power plant and an industrial facility with the worth of 600 million Dollars. Several Turkish and Omani companies agreed to conduct feasibility studies in various fields. President Gül’s visit enabled Turkish companies to participate in billion Dollar projects.

In conclusion, President Abdullah Gül’s visit to Muscat was the sign of mutual decisiveness to further develop the cooperation trend which started in 2001. When considering the parallel policies of the two countries and the agreements that were signed during the visit, we can assume that the Turkey-Oman relations will grow much stronger in the near future.

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