Oman: model of development

Georgie Anne Geyer

August 15, 1991|By Georgie Anne Geyer

Muscat, Sultanate of Oman -- DURING A six-week trip through Eastern Europe, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent, I knew I should celebrate a new world. The Cold War is over, communism is dead, the gulf war was won by "the just."

Instead, I found myself thinking of the world in terms of the two new "D's": disintegration and delusion. National disintegration is thriving, from East Germany to Yugoslavia, and from Gaza to Kuwait to India. Much of humanity seems ever more rooted in the delusions of extreme nationalism, of expansionism and particularly (as in Kuwait City and Belgrade) of the old idea that "it couldn't happen here."

At this point, needing badly my "sanity fix," I stopped by in Oman. This nation of only 2 million persons is one of a necklace of small and coherent countries in the world who increasingly offer mankind an attractive third "D": development.

Why has Oman been so successful, and in only 21 years? As with most things, the Omanis keep everything simple and clear. "I would say that pragmatism is the No. 1 reason," His Excellency Mohammed Bin Musa Al-Yousef, secretary general of the Development Council, told me here.

"Discipline is second and leadership is last, but not least. We have always thought free-market principles to be best. But the capitalist system also has crude edges. Our system tries to mitigate the crude edges. We help the poor. Our economy is thriving, but not at the expense of social values."

A balance, then, in thought and in action? "Exactly," this pleasant, crisp man in his meticulous white robes agreed, "a fine balance!"

Oman today is a country that is almost hard to believe. Until 1970, the country lay imprisoned in medieval times by its old sultan. But since the young Sultan Qaboos out of desperation overthrew his father that year, the country has blossomed. Gorgeous but appropriately sized buildings line neat boulevards and parks, built especially for the Omani people. The sultan and his ministries guard the country against "visual pollution" in architecture (read, ugliness) and have long had in place a most effective tool, the Ministry of the Environment, which carefully (and autocratically) monitors every environmental effect.

"Development" has been the mission, the crusade of the world since after World War II, when it was simply assumed by many leaders that most countries, now freed from colonialism, would simply develop. They did not, but Oman and a few others have. And it is in the down-to-earth factors that one finds the explanations of her success.

Bin Musa clicked them off. Oil income, accounting for only 44 percent of the total economy, is wisely invested back into agriculture, trade and small industry. Water is carefully protected, Omanis are encouraged to stay in the villages through investment there, and regional development plans are hammered out and carried through. Boys and girls go to the university together but walk on separate walkways. An astounding fact: The per capita income in Oman is now nearly $6,000 per person, just ahead of "advanced" Hong Kong's and rather substantially more than China's $350 per person.

The pragmatism -- the earthy practicality of an open-minded seafaring nation -- is shown on every level. It is guaranteed by a refusal to kowtow to what is "popular." When "Arab nationalism" was the most popular delusion, Oman eschewed it. When Egypt was ostracized after Camp David, Oman embraced her. When American troops were excluded from the Middle East, Sultan Qaboos in 1980 sculpted a treaty with the United States that discreetly allowed troops here.

Today, the sultan is chairman of the Gulf Cooperation Council's committee to study the crucial post-war security arrangements in the gulf. If people thought he was going to change, they should have looked elsewhere. He already is pushing a collective gulf defense, including the idea of a self-defending, 100,000-man gulf nation army -- another idea that would have been unthinkable before!

"We could have ruined our development, too," said Bin Musa, with some passion. "We could have spent money on big monuments and neglected the countryside . . ." Then he grew noticeably angry. "Think of all the 'Pan-Arabism,' " he went on, "how the dreams backfired on us. We Arabs have killed, tortured and slaughtered in the name of 'Pan-Arabism,' which is a myth! Instead, we could have done what the Asians have done, which is work together on our economies."

Indeed, that is just what the other small, coherent, pragmatic states (Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, South Korea, Costa Rica, Abu Dhabi, to name just a few ) are doing. Meanwhile, the Omanis sometimes fear that a world is coming in which big, disintegrating countries will be in various stages of collapse, while a few sober, realistic, little countries are islands that hold fast. They may be right.

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