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Shaping Modern Oman

Foggy Bottom in 1967 was a different place from what it is today; when Richard Baltimore III, BA ’69, transferred to GW from MacMurray College in Illinois, “The main cafeteria was in the women-only Thurston Hall, Quigley’s really was a drugstore, and Metro didn’t exist.” Baltimore is used to change after more than three decades of international service. Currently ambassador to the Sultanate of Oman, a position to which he was appointed by President Bush in 2000, Baltimore has made a career out of witnessing and interpreting international history.

Adjacent to Saudi Arabia and on the Arabian Sea, Oman has experienced rapid modernization and globalization since 1970, the year Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said took the throne from his father. Baltimore says at that time there were less than six miles of paved roads in the entire country, only a handful of schools, and one hospital staffed by American missionaries. “Oman now has a very modern nationwide road system and the entire country enjoys schools, hospitals, clinics, and public and private universities,” Baltimore reports. He hopes that, later this year, Oman will sign a Free Trade Agreement with the United States, building on the countries’ growing relationship.

Oman’s new Al-Buraimi College, The Modern College of Business and Science, and the Oman Medical College have ties with American universities. Oman’s first national ambulance service was inaugurated in 2004; the attendant staff was trained at GW Hospital. Though widespread modernization is a national goal, Oman also is focused on preserving and passing down its history and old-world practices. Led by Baltimore, the Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation has, for example, made it possible for the sole Omani who knew how to produce indigo dye from plant to finished product to gain two apprentices to pass on his wisdom.

Under Baltimore’s leadership, Oman was the first Middle Eastern country to host a U.S. government-sponsored freestanding computer/library reference center, part of a global initiative called “American Corners.” He took the initiative to secure Oman’s participation in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall in June, the first Arab country to do so as a single state.

Baltimore hopes American visitors and investors will help Oman’s travel and tourism industries to continue to grow. During his visits to Omani villages, “Without fail, the locals insist that I join them for coffee, tea, dates, and often a meal. They have no idea who I am other than a guest in their country who must be made to feel welcome and at home,” he says. “There are many aspects of U.S. foreign policy that are points of contention, but what we have in common outweighs the differences. This is a safe country that has a long history of people-to-people friendship with the United States.”

Religious tolerance and respect for women, Baltimore says, are two of the many examples of Oman’s dedication to peace: “Oman is the only country in the Islamic world with a majority that is neither Shia nor Sunni but Ibadhi, a branch known for moderation and tolerance. The government includes four women of cabinet rank. Half of its primary university’s students are female, as is a third of its civil service.”

Baltimore has also participated in an underwater expedition to explore seabed anomalies for ancient Omani ruins. His professional and personal adventures in Oman are a continuation of a love of travel and diplomacy found during his GW days when he switched majors from engineering to international affairs.

After graduating and attending Harvard Law School, he entered the Foreign Service as a political and economic officer in Lisbon, Portugal, witnessing the regime change when the Portuguese military overthrew the government in 1973.

From there, he served in Washington and countries including South Africa (where he befriended Winnie Mandela), Costa Rica, Hungary, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. His last Washington assignment was gaining private sector support for multiethnic institutions in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in the late ’90s.

While his immediate plans are to continue to foster goodwill and development between the United States and Oman, he is confident the future will hold more travel and adventure—Baltimore enjoys hiking, rafting, photography, and “anything that gets me in the air such as bungee jumping, F-16 and F-18 aircraft, ballooning, and stunt planes.” He shares his love of different countries and cultures with his wife, three daughters, and his father, a retired judge who now lives with the family in Oman’s capital, Muscat. “Notwithstanding having visited more than 90 countries and all 50 states, my interest in travel has not abated.”

—Laura Ewald