Thank you, Skip, for the kind introduction. It's a pleasure to see so many familiar faces and former colleagues from the State Department, including former Ambassador to Oman Frances Cook and current Executive Director of the Middle East Institute's Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center Ambassador Liz McKune. I am grateful also to President Knapp, for his stewardship of George Washington University and the Elliott School, which have played such an important role in educating generations of international leaders. And it is truly an honor to be here with my Omani friends and colleagues, Minister al-Busaidiyah, Secretary-General al-Busaidi, and Ambassador Mughairy.
The United States is proud to count Oman and His Majesty Sultan Qaboos as a close partner and friend. The 40th anniversary of the Sultan's leadership and this conference are an opportunity for broader reflection on the strong state of U.S.-Omani relations and the vital partnership that we enjoy.
As recent headlines attest, in a region of deep discontents and powerful grievances, Oman is distinguished by its status as a stable and modernizing country. In areas as diverse as educating and politically empowering women, promoting regional stability, developing a beyond-oil economy, and protecting the environment, Oman has moved gradually down the path of development, consistent with its historical, cultural and religious identity. Thanks to the leadership and strategic vision of Sultan Qaboos, Oman is a moderate Arab state that is at peace -- both at home and with its neighbors -- and is uniquely positioned to partner with the U.S. in building the common ground that is essential to President Obama's vision of a "new beginning ... based on mutual interest and mutual respect" between America and the peoples of the Middle East.
As many of you know, the United States and Oman share a friendship that dates back to 1790 when the American merchant ship “Rambler” entered the Port of Muscat. Since our two countries first came into contact, commerce has been a driving force in our relationship, culminating in the U.S.-Oman Free Trade Agreement, for which Ambassador Mughairy played such a critical role. That agreement, signed in 2006 and in effect since 2009, is now a pillar of our relationship as it opens markets and provides economic opportunities to Americans and Omanis alike. As the Government of Oman takes concerted steps to diversify its economy, more opportunities are emerging for economic cooperation. AES, Bechtel, Halliburton, Parson, and Honeywell are among the major U.S. corporations with a growing presence in Oman, with the recent $300 million investment by the U.S.-based Octal Petrochemicals serving as an anchor for the government's free trade zone in Salalah. The Small Business Development Center that the U.S. Small Business Administration will open in Oman in November will continue our close cooperation on entrepreneurship, commercial law, and trade union development.
We are committed to working with Oman to share knowledge and experience, and to provide training and job opportunities that benefit both our societies. Oman has identified higher education, information technology and tourism as critical sectors, which will reinforce our longstanding cooperation in developing Oman's most important resource -- its people -- while safeguarding the country's natural beauty. Through a growing number of academic and training programs, including high school exchanges, business internships, and an innovative initiative that links American and Omani university classrooms through digital video conferencing, we've deepened understanding between our societies, as well as contributed to His Majesty's progressive agenda for opening up Oman to the world. Through a Memorandum of Understanding on Environmental Cooperation, the United States and Oman are positioned to cooperate on building a sustainable tourism industry that has the potential to create thousands of jobs while protecting the country’s national parks and endangered species.
I am particularly proud of our initiatives through the State Department’s Middle East Partnership Initiative to further Oman’s efforts to empower women. Oman has been at the forefront of the region in promoting women’s rights: Omani women run for, and have been elected to, political office. Women comprise 40% of Oman’s civil service. More Omani women are studying for university degrees than men. We do not need to look further than this auditorium for examples of successful Omani women, with Dr. Busaidiyah one of three Omani women in His Majesty’s cabinet. She has provided dynamic leadership and support in the development of higher education in Oman. Likewise, Ambassador Mughairy has the distinction of being the first female Arab ambassador to the United States, and the U.S.-Oman relationship has benefitted greatly from her stewardship.
Oman's Regional Reach
Oman's strategic location, wrapped around the southeast corner of the Arabian peninsula and guarding the southern approaches to the Straits of Hormuz, has naturally made it a key partner for the United States in regional initiatives stretching from the Horn of Africa to South Asia and on the Arabian Peninsula. Just two weeks ago, Oman played an enormously helpful role in facilitating the release of Sarah Shourd, an American citizen who had been detained in Iran for more than a year. President Obama and Secretary Clinton both expressed their deep personal appreciation for Oman's diplomatic efforts, which reflect Sultan Qaboos' own personal interest in encouraging Iran to take advantage of the international community's offer of engagement.
The United States and Oman have long shared the same goal of promoting regional stability. Despite differences in approaches to some regional actors, the United States and Oman have built a strong security partnership. Oman was a founding member of the Gulf Cooperation Council in 1981 and the first country in the Gulf to negotiate a security cooperation agreement with the United States. That accord, signed in 1980, modified and expanded over the years, remains in effect today. Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom benefited from our strong security cooperation with Oman, and Oman continues to work closely with the United States in providing crucial logistics and prepositioning support, and in participating in joint exercises in the region. Its intention to purchase an additional 18 F-16 airplanes will further enhance our interoperability and cooperation.
In the quest for Arab-Israeli peace, we count on Oman to continue its pragmatic efforts to build the common ground and mutual respect essential for the success of a two-state solution and the emergence of a comprehensive peace. Whether resisting pressure to isolate Egypt in the wake of its peace treaty with Israel in 1979, or stepping up as the first Gulf state to host an Israeli delegation to a multilateral peace process meeting, Oman has taken risks for peace. An enduring example of its leadership in the region is the Middle East Desalination Research Center, which Oman hosts and cofounded with the United States in 1997. Under Omani leadership, the Center continues to bring together from around the region technical professionals to address challenges of water scarcity, by developing region specific desalination and water re-use techniques and capacity.
But the most important factor that will propel Oman forward on the international stage, in my view, is continued progress in the modernization agenda that Sultan Qaboos has spearheaded. Building a modern, economically diversified, and democratic society is the ultimate antidote to the fundamentally negative agenda of violent extremists, who are much better at describing what they want to destroy than what they want to build. As the Arab Human Development Report makes clear, much of the region continues to suffer from closed economic and political system which produce too little diversification, too few jobs, too few outlets for peaceful political change, and too much intolerance.
Against this backdrop, Oman's evolution since Sultan Qaboos came to power in 1970 is striking. The country has a growing economy and excellent infrastructure. Oman’s government institutions are strong and transparent. Civil society continues to grow, including with the establishment of an independent human rights commission. There is an abiding commitment to the rule of law and first class schools and universities. Maintaining its seafaring tradition of openness, Oman remains a place where people of many faiths and many nationalities live and work together. Continued political reforms will help solidify these achievements and we look forward to active participation in the upcoming Shura Council elections in November 2011. As Oman continues its political and economic evolution to better reflect and respond to the needs of its citizens, it is taking steps essential to confront the challenges of the 21st century.
We are all well aware of the challenges -- from combating extremism to meeting the aspirations of a younger generation to encouraging the peace process -- that exist in the Middle East. While this conference is focused on reflecting back over the last 40 years, it is also an opportunity to look ahead, and to see even more clearly how U.S.-Omani partnership can help meet those challenges successfully.
I am confident that Oman, under the leadership of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos, can and will succeed in providing the dignity and respect and possibilities for a better life that Oman's citizens and the people of the Middle East seek. The United States will continue to attach high value to its close friendship and partnership with Oman, just as it has since our two countries first made contact more than two centuries ago.
Thank you and enjoy the conference.
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