Muscat Confidential Interviews:
Dr. Richard J. Schmierer, U.S. Ambassador to the Sultanate of Oman
May 16, 2010
Undercover Dragon: What is your advice to Omanis who are considering studying in the USA? It is rumoured that it is more difficult for Muslims to get visas these days, and that the environment within the States for people from the Middle East is increasingly unsympathetic.
Richard J. Schmierer: I have to disagree just a little here. It’s actually getting easier and easier for Omanis to travel to the United States – we have one of the highest visa-issuance rates in the world here, and the vast majority of visas for Omanis are not only approved, but approved in two business days.
In terms of students, we’ve just gotten the figures for international students in the U.S. for 2008-09, and it was a record year: over 670,000 international students in total, with the number from the Middle East up 17% over 2007-08.
As a destination, I would suggest that the U.S. is one of the best – if not the best – place for a student to go. We have over 4,000 accredited colleges and universities. For a student with ambition and academic ability, there is almost certainly a school that’s an excellent match. Many American colleges and universities are actively seeking students from this part of the world, and many are putting together very attractive financial packages for high-achieving applicants. AMIDEAST, on behalf of the Embassy, runs an excellent program here called EducationUSA that advises on study in the U.S.
UD: Why doesn't the US Embassy host more social events? The British Embassy seem to be better at that - maybe you should think about upping your game?
RJS: I’m pleased that our British and other diplomatic colleagues host social and cultural activities here in Oman; we at the American Embassy are also quite active in this area.
Our approach to such activities may be a little different from some of our fellow embassies, in the way we engage local audiences. We had the public blues concert last month, for example, with about 500 attending (and thanks again for your help in getting the word out), but we also sent the band out to play for students at a primary school and at a private college outside Muscat, where both the students and the musicians had a fantastic time.
I’ve hosted some wonderful events that I’ve found to be great learning experiences – with Omani young people, for example, or with aspiring entrepreneurs – but they tend to be smaller, more private events. We had a marvelous evening with local leaders earlier this year when I visited Masirah Island, and I’m looking forward to hosting more events as I travel within Oman.
Of course, we do host some larger gatherings as well – our annual national-day reception in February, for example, opens the Embassy garden up to 600 or so of our closest friends.
UD: How do you think the USA can best help Oman, and the GCC region, to achieve their development goals?
RJS: I think we can keep doing the kinds of things we have been in recent years: work together, listen respectfully to each other’s priorities, and conduct activities that help bring people together. More and more, we are looking for innovative ways to connect people and organizations in the U.S. with those from Oman and the region. There is a great deal of interest and goodwill on both sides in support of such engagement.
UD: Is Barack Obama planning to meet with His Majesty?
RJS: A presidential visit – or a visit by His Majesty to Washington – would be a wonderful thing. I have a feeling that they would very much enjoy each other’s company; they’re both remarkable people. To be candid, though, there are currently no plans for such a meeting.
UD: How has the election of Barack Obama changed the USA's foreign policy to the Middle East and Oman?
RJS: The President’s Cairo speech last June laid out new directions in a way that was both idealistic and very practical. It means more cooperation, more engagement in areas like entrepreneurship, science, and technology, and a renewed commitment to support peace across the region. In many ways, that speech has become a blueprint for the way forward, and we’re already seeing some very encouraging results.
UD: What mistakes has the USA made recently in its relationship with the GCC region, and what are you doing about it? Does it frustrate you that the USA seems to be blamed for the regions' woes, and is often vilified in segments of the media; yet many 'ordinary' Middle Eastern people love to visit and live in the USA? (and usually seem to have relatives there!)
RJS: I do think that that U.S. sometimes gets an outsize share of both blame and expectations when it comes to regional issues. It’s understandable, I suppose – we’re an easy target.
I’m very glad that people from the region are eager to visit the U.S. and to be engaged with America and Americans; they are very welcome in our country. I’m likewise pleased that the reverse is increasingly true – that we’re seeing more and more Americans who want to know more about this part of the world. Arabic, for example, is the fastest-growing second language being taught in the U.S. now, and here in Oman we’re seeing more and more programs that bring Americans out to study and to teach, both through the U.S. government and privately.
UD: Can you list some specific examples of how is the USA trying to engage more positively with ordinary people in the region?
RJS: That could turn into a very long list indeed. Here in Oman, for example, we have programs like the English Access Microscholarship Program, which provides two years of intensive English to some 280 deserving students across the country who wouldn’t otherwise get that level of training. We have a program called Youth Exchange and Study, YES, which sends high-school students to the U.S. for one school year, where they live and study in American communities. Last year, for the first time, we brought American students to Oman to do the same thing for one semester, and we’ll be doing more of that in the future.
More and more, we’re trying to reach out to younger people, to new audiences like aspiring entrepreneurs, and to do cooperative programming that’s tailored specifically to meet local needs.
One of the broadest and I think most useful ways we’re reaching out is online, through efforts like America.gov, which provides a huge range of information – in English, Arabic, and many other languages – directly to anyone with access to the Internet.
UD: Last year the US State Dept. annual report to Congress on Human Trafficking originally rated Oman "Tier 3", but following protests from the Omani Government this was changed to "Tier 2 Watch List". What happened?
RJS: Actually, it wasn’t protests that moved Oman off Tier 3, but positive, concrete efforts here in Oman to combat trafficking.
TIP – trafficking in persons – is an issue that the American people and the American Congress take very seriously. We work with countries all over the world to encourage best practices and active efforts to help stem this truly terrible assault on human dignity, and we’re required by the Congress to report annually on what each country achieves (we carry out the same kinds of reporting, although through other mechanisms, on ourselves, by the way).
Oman has a lot to be proud of in regard to its work combating trafficking in recent years, and I think our annual TIP report reflects that. By the way, Oman is Tier 2, not Tier 2 Watch List.
UD: Why doesn't the US Embassy allow its citizens to marry at the embassy?
RJS: That’s a complicated question. What it boils down to is that in the United States, marriage isn’t a matter for the federal government (of which the Embassy is a part, falling under the U.S. Department of State), but rather for each of our individual states, which we represent only indirectly, so it isn’t one of the services we can provide to American citizens overseas.
UD: Anything you would like to say to the readers of Muscat Confidential?
RJS: I’m tempted to say: don’t believe everything you read on the Internet! What I will say is that I think the development of outlets like this blog, and the other fascinating English and Arabic blogs now active in Oman, are really changing the way people communicate and share ideas. I’m glad to have the chance to be part of that.
UD: Any advice for Muscat Confidential?
RJS: I wouldn’t presume to advise the dean of Oman’s English bloggers – except perhaps to make sure you quote me accurately. Our Public Affairs staff is fierce, and you wouldn’t want to get on their bad side…
I hope that you and other bloggers, in English and Arabic, will keep up the good work of reflecting on the world around you, thoughtfully, responsibly, and in ways that help your readers and contributors think about their own experiences.
UD: Thank you for answering my questions, Your Excellency.
**Disclaimer: This interview was conducted via email in early May 2010 with the kind assistance of Mr. Daniel M. Pattarini, Assistant Public Affairs Officer with the US State Department, Muscat. The interview was concluded on May 16th, 2010 and is unedited from the original.
Official Bio: DR. RICHARD J. SCHMIERER