State of Surprise
Harvey Kipper presents another one of his inimitable
reports on the DC Wharton Club's latest embassy reception & briefing
By Harvey Kipper
Here’s a test of your knowledge of world affairs. Try yourself on the following questions and suggested answers. With which do you agree, or disagree?
1) Which country has an ancient civilization? Mexico?
2) Which country’s guide showed a famous explorer the way to India? Portugal?
3) Which country has Portuguese forts from the 1500’s as well as majestic palm trees? Brazil?
4) Which country signed a treaty of friendship with the United States in the early 1800’s? The Netherlands?
5) Which country is at peace with itself and its neighbors? Switzerland?
6) Which country has snowcapped mountains but never experiences snow? Kenya?
7) Which country has a number of speakers of Swahili? Tanzania?
8) Which country has friendly relations with Iran, and why? Syria?
On April 12, Wharton Club of DC President and intrepid explorer Mr. Alan Schlaifer called to order a hardy band of Wharton Club adventurers. After wending their way through the wilds of Kalorama, past colorful tulips, blossoming azaleas, and dazzling dogwood trees, they entered the territory of Oman, more specifically the Embassy of the Sultanate of Oman Residence. As we were to learn, we would gain new insight into the answers to the questions posed above.
Once our group entered the Residence, we were warmly embraced by friendly Embassy staff. They included the Deputy Chief of Mission, Mr. Abdullah Al-Riyami, the First Secretary, Mr. Ahmed Al-Zadjali, and the Public Affairs Liaison Officer, Mrs. Sara D. Al-Ojaili. Soon Her Excellency Ambassador Hunaina Al-Mughairy joined them (Amb. is at left below with Mrs Al-Ojaili).
The Ambassador guided her guests through the luxurious mansion, past rooms tastefully furnished and beautifully decorated, their walls adorned with Greco-Roman scenes embossed on leather canvas, into a lovely garden patio. There they were served refreshing drinks and delectable hors d’oeuvres.
Ambassador Al-Mughairy and her staff engaged their guests in stimulating conversation on topics ranging from the history, culture, demographics, and linguistic diversity of Oman to the recent blizzards in Washington, D.C. Concerning the latter, the Ambassador remarked humorously that she regretted being in Oman in January and February when D.C. was battered by storms. She could have used the enforced respite indoors to eliminate excess paper.
Born in Dar es Salaam, Ambassador Al-Mughairy was down-to-earth, modest, and forthcoming about her personal history. She was not a diplomat by training (that distinction belongs to her husband, Oman’s Ambassador to the United Nations), but rather an economist. She was selected as Ambassador almost five years ago in order to negotiate a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the United States. She did not know how much longer her service would be required.
The Deputy Chief of Mission, Mr. Abdullah Al-Riyami, the First Secretary, Mr. Ahmed Al-Zadjali, and the Public Affairs Liaison Officer, Mrs. Sara D. Al-Ojaili, were very gracious. Mr. Al-Riyami spoke of Omani hospitality - and definitely exemplified it. A true gentleman, he insisted that guests be served first and that they always precede him when entering or exiting a room. Unlike the Ambassador, he did not regret being in Oman this past winter.
Mr. Ahmed Al-Zadjali demonstrated a thorough grasp of Omani history, from the ancient civilization of Mezoun, through the almost 143-year period of
Portuguese colonization, to the present time. Fluent in Swahili (as are many Omanis because of the history of close ties to East Africa) and Urdu besides Arabic and English, he spoke of Oman’s Portuguese forts, its diverse terrain which included 3.000 meter snow-covered peaks, its ten Arabic dialects, its upcoming census (expected to confirm a population of almost 3 million), and the anticipated opening of a spectacular history museum in the capital, Muscat, in 2012.
The Public Affairs Liaison Officer, Mrs. Sara D. Al-Ojaili, mentioned that she was from the south of Oman. If anyone detected a southern accent, she joked, that resulted from living in Austin for 15 years. Though she enjoyed working in Washington, it was obvious that her heart was still in Texas.
After an hour or so of delightful banter, the Ambassador and her staff beckoned guests to the dining area. There a lavish buffet awaited them. Includ
ed were salads, humus, pita bread, rice, fish, lamb, kofta, even a special Mideast type of macaroni and cheese, all making the groaning board emit sounds of delight. As guests brought their heaping plates to table and savored the delicious food, their pleasure was palpable.
e of Anne P. Orleans, Our "Ambassador to the World"
Time passed quickly. President Schlaifer rose to address the crowded room. He spoke movingly of Ms. Anne Orleans, who had recently passed away. He had met Ms. Orleans at the National Press Club almost 20 years ago. He realized what a small world it was because her son, Ron, had been his high school classmate, and the Orleans home was in a prominent location in Silver Spring, MD. Anne had been instrumental in organizing over 75 embassy events for the Wharton Club of DC, selflessly making use of her extensive contacts in the diplomatic community, and always doing an outstanding job.
Wharton Club member Mr. Steven Oser also delivered a warm tribute to Ms. Orleans. He related how, while ill, she had expressed her hope that the evening at the Embassy of the Sultanate of Oman Residence would be one to remember. Mr. Oser stated that he imagined Ms. Orleans watching the evening unfold and being thrilled by its success.
Ambassador's Stimulating Discussion of Key Aspects of Oman
Then Ambassador Al-Mughairy delivered her remarks. She first responded to President Schlaifer’s and Mr. Oser’s comments about Ms. Orleans. With warmth and emotion, she thanked them and expressed genuine sympathy for Ms. Orleans and her son.
As the Ambassador sp
oke, a silent video depicting the culture, people, flora and fauna, and natural beauty of Oman played in the background. Memorable scenes included the national emblem of Oman, consisting of a dagger in a sheath superimposed on two crossed swords; the Arabian oryx and leopard; date palms swaying in the sea breeze; and rugged cliffs towering above serene shores.
Beginning with little known facts about her country, she immediately secured the rapt attention of the audience. “Did you know that it was an Omani who guided Vasco da Gama to India? Were you aware that a Treaty of Amity between Oman and the United States was signed during the administration of President Andrew Jackson?” Though no one responded, the answers to both questions were probably negative.
Her Excellency reiterated that she was an economist whose main mission was to secure a FTA with the United States. She reached this milestone in January 2009. Conclusion of the FTA was considered vital for Oman, but not because it opened Oman to U.S. exports. Rather, its importance lay in attracting neighboring nations’ industries to Oman. These would hopefully relocate permanently, manufacturing and exporting from Oman.
She mentioned other political, economic, and trade groups to which Oman belonged, such as the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation.
Ambassador Al-Mughairy stated that an important goal of Oman was to diversify its economy by dropping the oil sector’s share of their GDP from 40% to 9% by year 2020 and increase the share of the non-oil sector from 7.5% to 29%. Downstreaming of Liquid Natural Gas, i.e., recovering and purifying biosynthetic products from it, is one approach. Agriculture is another possibility. However, the largely desert landscape of Oman precludes much cultivation, with the exception of date palms. A more likely candidate is tourism, given the stunning scenery described above.
Her Excellency described Oman’s government, including its head of state, the Sultan Qaboos bin Said; the appointed Upper Chamber; and the elected Lower Chamber.
After her talk, the Ambassador suggested a break before Q&A so that those not yet sated could have seconds. After a moment of stunned silence, several guests accepted the generous offer, returning with additional fare.
Questions & Answers
There was no shortage of questions. The first concerned women’s issues.
How had Her Excellency succeeded in a man’s world to become the first female ambassador from an Arab country?
Ambassador Al-Mughairy stated that it had not been as difficult as one might think. She had worked in industry, and her efforts garnered respect. She did, though, relate an anecdote that proved that women from the Arab world were not expected to hold high positions. Upon entering a Congressional meeting with a male colleague, she was the one immediately presumed NOT to be the representative of her country.
The second questioner asked how Oman had managed to avoid internal and external conflict, remaining a tranquil outpost in a difficult neighborhood.
The answer is simple, according to the Ambassador. Oman and its neighbors have clearly demarcated borders. Moreover, a cornerstone of Oman’s foreign policy is non-interference in other nations’ affairs.
Regarding, internal conflict, such as religious strife, that did not exist because the three branches of Islam in
Oman lived together respectfully, harmoniously, and, therefore, without acrimony.
Her Excellency correctly anticipated that there would be a query about relations with Iran.
Due to prior Iranian assistance in quelling a communist insurgency in the south, Oman still feels a debt of gratitude towards Iran, and Oman considers Iran to be a friend. A second factor is Oman’s already cited foreign policy of non-interference in other nations’ affairs.
Another concern was voiced: Does terrorism in Yemen spill over into Oman?
The Ambassador responded no. Since the communist insurgency in the south was defeated, there have been no difficulties stemming from Yemen.
A guest queried: What is Oman’s policy towards environmental issues?
According to Her Excellency, Oman is very concerned with safeguarding its natural treasures. It has re-introduced the Arabian oryx from California, where a breeding population was established after the native herds were hunted a
lmost to extinction years ago. Now the oryx is rebounding there. Sea turtles are also successfully reproducing in Oman. Oman also was the first country in the region to have a ministry of environment.
When are the best times to visit Oman? Please discuss the best way to get there from the U.S.
Since Oman has a desert climate, it can get very hot for most Westerners from April through July. October through March is the ideal time to visit.
There are flights directly from the U.S. to Qatar, which then require just a relatively short hop to Oman. Another possible itinerary is via Europe.
Infrastructure to accommodate tourists has been developed. From a scant three kilometers of paved roads not long ago, Oman now has an excellent and extensive network of roads.
How is Oman diversifying?
As she had indicated previously, the Ambassador stated that agriculture is being considered, even though the climate has inherent drawbacks, and tourism is being actively promoted.
At this point Ambassador Al-Mughairy suggested a break in the Q&A for dessert. As the nearly sated guests looked at one another in disbelief, absorbing this rather “alarming” news, most eventually decided that they would make a valiant attempt. Returning with plates laden with skewers of fruit dipped in a chocolate fountain, cakes, crème caramel, and other assorted goodies, they ate rapturously.
A while later, with the onset of nightfall and carbohydrate-induced somnolence, the general consensus was that it was time to adjourn. President Schlaifer announced that Mr. Harvey Kipper, who had written about other embassy events of our Club, would report on this evening’s proceedings. He also introduced Ms. Phyllis Shearer Jones of the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) Small business Initiative (far left with Barry and Jean Loper in photo at left). She is planning and leading a business trade mission to Oman in September, along with another one from Oman to the U.S. this year.
After saying goodbye to Her Excellency Ambassador Al-Mughairy, Deputy Chief of Mission Mr. Abdullah Al-Riyami, First Secretary, Mr. Ahmed Al-Zadjali, Public Affairs Liaison Officer, Mrs. Sara D. Al-Ojaili, and to each other, the Wharton Club of DC members and their guests departed the Embassy of the Sultanate of Oman Residence. A wonderful evening came to a close.
As an added bonus, the visitors from the United States now knew the response to all the questions posed at the beginning of the article. The sole answer, of course, is the Sultanate of Oman, no longer a “State of Surprise.”
Text Copyright 2010, Harvey Kipper. All Rights Reserved.
Photographs Copyright 2010, All Rights Reserved, Alan N. Schlaifer, except as noted. To see all of the evening's photos, and order copies of any solely for your own non-commercial use, you should click here , and enter the password: wcdc2010.
About the Author, Harvey Kipper (in center of picture at left between two of Ambassador's key aides)
A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Harvey Kipper is a member of the Wharton Club of DC, the University of Pennsylvania Alumni Club of Washington, DC, and American Mensa, Ltd. Harvey's interests include archaeology, foreign affairs, languages, and travel. His personal e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org, and his home phone number is (703) 920-4097.