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Egypt Condemns 183 Muslim Brotherhood Members to Death; Al Jazeera Journalist Freed in Egypt, Two More Held; ISIS-Affiliated Group Attacks Sinai; Jordan Got No Proof of Life on Captured Pilot; Japan Mourns Journalist Killed by ISIS; Boko Haram Attack on Key City Repelled; Islam 2015; Oman's Discreet Diplomacy; American Football Touches Down in UAE; Parting Shots: Five Reasons to Travel to Oman

Aired February 2, 2015 - 11:00   ET



YUSUF BIN ALAWI, OMAN FOREIGN MINISTER: We have been in wars for many times, for the last three or four decades it's war after war, war after

war, war after war. This has to be disappeared (ph).


BECKY ANDERSON, HOST: With volatility on Amman's doorstep, tonight' the Gulf nation's foreign minister tells us enough is enough.

Well, this hour we're live in Muscat where we'll examine how Oman can protect the stability it holds dear, how its growing state is a hub of

diplomacies boosting its international influence and why falling oil revenues are forcing this resilient nation to diversify.

And welcome to a special edition of Connect the World with me Becky Anderson coming to you live tonight from Muscat, the tranquil capital of

Amman is a world where it seems from some of its volatile neighbors on the Arabian peninsula more frequently making the news.

We're bordered here to the northwest by the UAE, Saudi Arabia to the west, Yemen lies southwest and Iran just off Oman's northern tip.

The importance of protecting those borders, particularly with Yemen, is something I raised with Oman's foreign minister Yusuf bin Alawi earlier



ALAWI: We are concerned for many reasons. Of course the area, or the Sanaa is far away from our border. This is area of precarious and

precarious gives a chance for every groups, extremist groups extremist terrorist, whatever.

But we are dealing with that matters. This is not yesterday's happening, this is for years in Yemen. And I don't think it's going to be

short. It's going to go for some times.

ANDERSON: How do you prevent slippage into this region?

ALAWI: We have enough vigilant arrangements in that part of the borders.

ANDERSON: But you accept that the risk is there?

ALAWI: But there is a risk, of course. I mean, there is no border zero risk with Yemen. That is it's not any -- in any area of the globe,

there is no zero risk in the border.


ANDERSON: All right. We're going to have more from the foreign minister Bin Alawi later this hour. Staying, though, with border security

for the time being, Yemen's political instability is rattling Saudi Arabia, Oman's neighbor, of course.

The kingdom investing billions of dollars to boost border defenses. CNN's Nic Robertson has been given exclusive access to Saudi's border

patrol along what is that very threatening frontier. Have a look at this.


NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Saudi border police on the gun. They're right next to Yemen. We're racing

alongside the border fence. It's rare access. Yemen is falling apart. And Saudi Arabia is on the front line of the fallout.

(on camera): We just spotted a group of smugglers right over there. They're walking towards the border. And we just raced up here along the

border fence with these gun trucks to try to catch them.

(voice-over): No one knows who they are, terrorists, gun runners, drug mules. Earlier in the day...

(on camera): So, you have a great view here back -- right back along the border.

(voice-over): Commanders take us to see how the Yemenis are crossing the border.

(on camera): You can see some people walking across the river there.

(voice-over): Saudis say they are spending almost $3 billion building new border roads, watch towers and high-tech surveillance. Their biggest

fear, terrorists slipping into the kingdom.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: See the Houthi? Just behind.

ROBERTSON: In recent weeks, Iranian-backed Houthi tribesmen have taken control of Yemen's capital, creating instability that Al Qaeda is

exploiting, threatening attack in Saudi. But high in the hills, the terrain is so torturous there isn't even a fence. (on camera): And it's not just

this border with Yemen snaking through the mountains that the Saudis are trying to secure. To the north, the border with Iraq has come under attack

from ISIS.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: These are life situations now.

ROBERTSON (on camera): What's happening?

(voice-over): Back at the border post, more people keep coming.

(on camera): Oh, there's someone right there. Here.

(voice-over): The camera operates and tells the patrol where to go. They move in, arrest the suspect.

(on camera): That man was picked up just down there where that van is coming around the bend in the road. And what the border police are telling

us is that in the last three months alone, they picked up more than 42,000 people. And the problem is those people could be just anyone, smugglers or

even terrorists.

They just brought us down to the one guy they captured that we saw on camera there.

(voice-over): He tells me he's poor, been sneaking into Saudi to work illegally for the past 20 years. But, recently, because of the security

improvements, it's become much harder.

(on camera): Late in the afternoon, we've come to another base and they've told us they've captured some smugglers, some cat smugglers. These

are -- these are -- these are children.

(voice-over): It turns out, the youngest is 10. The second time he's been caught smuggling in Yemeni's drug of choice, the stimulant, cat,

leaves of a shrub which are chewed. He says he gets $50 per trip from drug barons.

(on camera): So, well, sir, what do you do with him?

(voice-over): The answer, send him back to Yemen. It turns out, though, their tiny haul is a drop in the ocean.

(on camera): Well, look at this pile of tusks (ph) right here. Huge.

(voice-over): In the past three months, he tells me, along the 500- mile border, more than half a million tons seized. Street value, close to

$100 million.

Back on the dust chase with the gun trucks, the fleeing men are caught. They say they are poor Yemenis, unarmed, on their way home, only

here to earn money. So for (ph) some say Saudi jail is better than freedom in Yemen.

(on camera): And how do you know if any of these men aren't connected with some terrorist group?

He tells me they get fingerprinted. If they have a record, the police will know right away.

As the sun sets, trucked off to a nearby police station. Minutes later, more young drug mules apprehended. This day, this night, tomorrow,

next week and beyond, the desert kingdom threatened at its borders.


ANDERSON: Well, Nic Robertson is back from that exclusive Saudi border visit and joins me now from our London bureau. And Nic, so many

people crossing so much drug smuggling. What are the implications for stopping al Qaeda slipping across that border?

ROBERTSON: It's a challenge. The terrain itself, the sheer numbers of people going across, some of the money involved, because you know it's

not just that cat that's being smuggled, but there's hashish, we were shown cannabis resin, you know, total value they think of the last three months,

the amount that's crossed -- across the border about $36 million.

So where you've got money involved, where you've got high numbers of people crossing for organizations like al Qaeda that is an opportunity to

slip people in and out. And what we've seen from the -- on the Saudi side is al Qaeda wants to target the monarchy there. The interior minister

himself was targeted by al Qaeda in Yemen's top bomb maker a couple of years ago. He very luckily escaped with minor injuries. So it's a

personal issue even for the interior minister who controls those border guards.

So it's a real concern that collapsing Yemen and a border that is hard to control therefore leads to potential for attack in Saudi Arabia.

ANDERSON: And this is something I discussed with the foreign minister here, that sensitive border to their southwest and the risks that that


We know that al Qaeda is exporting an extremist ideology in Yemen. We've seen that, for example from the Paris attacks, for example. Just how

big a concern is security across these borders in this region?

ROBERTSON: Well, take the northern border as well where the Saudi government has invested a huge amount of money in a sophisticated operation

there -- thermal imaging, drones, all sorts -- wire fences, sand berms, to try to keep ISIS, which are now on their northern border, from parts of

Iraq to keep them out. There was an attack just a few weeks ago. ISIS filmed it. They attacked a Saudi border post. Several soldiers and a

commanding officer were killed.

So, this -- it's a very real and active concern for them. And as well as fighters going away from Saudi to join ISIS. There's a potential for

them coming back into Saudi Arabia. And there's a potential there for attacks particularly, again, against the security institutions and the

monarchy in Saudi Arabia who ISIS want to target because they are the custodians of Islam's two holiest sites and this global caliphate they want

has its eyes on that prize.

So, Saudi Arabia is really in their crosshairs. So threatened from the north, threatened from the south. And that is a concern.

ANDERSON: Nic Robertson in London for you this evening. Nic, thank you.

A lot more news to cover this hour. We've been following the long awaited trip home of an Australian journalist jailed in Egypt for more than

a year. Let's not forget two of his colleagues, though, still behind bars.

And just hours ago, we learned that another court sentenced 183 people to death in connection with anti-government protests. We're live in Cairo

with the details.

Also, Japan mourns while Jordan waits for proof of a pilot captured by ISIS still alive. We take a look at what Jordan is doing now to secure the

pilot's release.

And for the second time in a week, Boko Haram has attempted to capture a northern Nigerian city. We'll explain why that city is being targeted by

the militant group.

After this short break, more from Amman's foreign minister Yusuf bin Alawi. We'll hear what he has to say about the country's relationship with

Tehran and how it affects Oman's other regional relationships. Stay with us here. We're live in Muscat. This is Connect the World with me Becky

Anderson on CNN.


ANDERSON: Right. You're with CNN and Connect the World with me Becky Anderson. Welcome back. Now with the royal opera house Muscat behind me,

you join us in the Omani capital where we are live from the Intercon Hotel (ph) for what is a special edition of this show.

Now over the past couple of years this once laid back port city has emerged as a diplomatic powerhouse. Most importantly it's hosted talks

between the Iranian and American negotiators possibly paving the way for what would be an historic nuclear agreement.

Well, we sat down earlier with the long-time foreign minister Yusuf bin Alawi to ask him about his country's brand of discrete diplomacy.


ANDERSON: I want you to talk about what is Oman's unique role in global politics, about being a mediator between the U.S. and Iran. And

this is -- this predates the revolution, of course, in 1979, but most recently hosting talks between Washington and Tehran. There was a deadline

for a political deal at the end of March. Are you optimistic that will be met?

ALAWI: I am optimistic that they're going to strike a deal whether in March or in July, a deal is going to be, because this is -- gives benefits

for everyone.

And you should understand if they don't reach a deal what is alternative? And this deal is the only deal of its kind that (inaudible)

it will not allow it in the future a crisis of this kind. This is the strong wall between stability and crisis.

ANDERSON: So you've been a close to these talks as anybody. There are those who say that Iran and the U.S. should talk together and leave

P5+1 out of this. Do you agree?


ANDERSON: Why not?

ALAWI: Because this is a -- it's not bilateral matter. It's an international concern.

The United States probably the -- you know, the most member who is more concerned of the proliferation of nuclear. But without United Nations

and all world support this agreement. And it should be an agreement which no one would have any reservation.

ANDERSON: You've talked about the alternative being not something we should consider. If these talks don't work, how will that affect Oman's

relations with the U.S. and/or relations with Tehran? Which are more important to you?

ALAWI: First, I don't think either of those two parties is for any moment thinking of the alternatives. They are going to straight for to

strike a deal, that is what it is. We are not taking sides at all. We are trying to facilitate the both side with what we think it is good for them.

ANDERSON: If you were to describe the Oman doctrine to me, what is it?

ALAWI: What we are doing now is that we want to see this region and other regions -- in this we have been in wars for many times for the last

three or four decades with war after war, war after war, war after war. This is -- has to be disappeared.


ANDERSON: With the foreign minister cordial ties with Iran gives Muscat's foreign policy balance is how one commentator describes it.

Let me bring in Scott Armstrong who is chief executive editor of the Times of Oman.

I wonder how Oman's willingness to stay engaged with its neighbor across the Straits of Hormuz affects relations with Saudi, its larger and

regional neighbor?

SCOTT ARMSTRONG, EXECUTIVE EDITOR, THE TIMES OF OMAN: It doesn't, but that's because Oman is very confident in who it is, what's important to its

people. And it has no problem agreeing to disagree. It's very respectful, but it's also very firm. And I think that's respected in the region, not

just in Saudi but across the border in Abu Dhabi and the other DCC nations.

They know that Oman will speak to what Oman wants to do. It has, you know, priorities for its people. And they're friendship with Iran is a

political friendship dating back decades, but it's also a very practical relationship with trade being very important to Oman.

ANDERSON: Geographically incredibly strategic this country, sitting as it does at the opening of the Strait of Hormuz, and at a time when

things are really tough in this region.

We've been talking tonight about security and the possible slippage across borders in this region. Just how big a concern is security here?

ARMSTRONG: Oh, it is a concern. And it's long been a concern. But Oman are past masters of doing this. This -- Yemen has been there all

along and Yemen has been unstable for many years. So it's been watching its borders carefully for some time.

Is there concern about the latest developments across the border? Yeah, of course there is. Not just from a security point of view, but from

a humanitarian point of view as well, because Oman takes its responsibilities on that front very seriously as well.

Of course, there is an economic impact on humanitarian aid as well coming at a time where oil revenues are low, there is something that they

discuss and it is a concern here, yes.

ANDERSON: Oman struggling to balance its budgets going forward at a price of $75 on the barrel. And clearly the price is lower at the moment.

So declining oil revenues clearly an issue here.

Scott, for the time being, thank you. I'm going to come back to you a little later in the show. Thank you.

Well, Scott is with me throughout this hour live from Muscat. This is Connect the World with me Becky Anderson. Coming up other news for you.

One al Jazeera journalist is finally free. Two of his colleagues remain behind bars in Egypt. We go live to Cairo for the very latest for you.

With more than 40 years, the World Economic Forum has drawn heads of state, celebrities and CEO. But how does the city house all of these high

profile guests? And what happens when they leave, because they have left. It is the morning after the night before as it were. Weeks gone after

Davos. We're going to revisit that in One Square Meter. That is next.



JOHN DEFTERIOS, EMERGING MARKETS EDITOR: This week on One Square Meter from the Swiss Alps we take a look at how an economic forum put Davos

on the global map and also sparked a mini building boom.

Europe's highest city, Davos, is synonymous with the World Economic Forum. Each year, this man, founder Klaus Schwab, pulls in over 2,500 of

the global business elite to the ski resort.

KLAUS SCHWAB, WORLD ECONOMIC FORUM FOUNDER: I'm very thankful to the Davos population that it absolves us in such a way, because it's not easy

with one such major event per year and then to find back to normal life.

DEFTERIOS: Davos wants to create a new normal, reaching new heights by boosting year-around visitors. But a hotel boom was ahead of that

vision. On the edge of the valley, the old and new dot the alpine landscape. This space age looking structure with 216 rooms is managed by


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think you have to become a destination. So clearly Davos is a ski -- a small ski resort. It's a destination for the

forum. But if you have properties like this hotel it can be a destination in its own right.

DEFTERIOS: Not just yet. The Swiss Auld Hotel (ph) went into bankruptcy during the first two years of operation after overcoming an

extreme shortage of rooms for the annual event, five star hoteliers in Davos, totaling about 400 rooms, now find themselves sitting on too much

capacity after the big annual event rolls out of town.

This is Davos Dorf (ph).

The main thoroughfare which runs through the Swiss village, and very importantly. From where I'm standing, it's less than a 10 minute walk to

the Congress Center. During the World Economic Forum, even three star hotels are hard to come by. I've been staying at this one, the Concordia,

for the last 10 years.

Anna Kina Kohler (ph) is a third generation helping manage the 21 room hotel.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Davos should do something to be a bigger congress town. At the end of the day, is a couple of weeks a year. So

that's not enough to have the excuse that we build rooms and capacity for the World Economic Forums and other congresses.

DEFTERIOS: Her mother, Ute (ph), says the four and five star hotels slash their prices during the offseason.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Today, we're totally booked with 90 people.

DEFTERIOS: On the other side of town, the manager of one of the city's oldest restaurants, a fondue house, said it was important to

modernize the offering.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a mixture of modern and traditional old- fashioned things, I think, it works. So, this is what tourists are searching for, also our congress guests who be here for a couple of days.

DEFTERIOS: Getting more visitors to stay longer and beyond the winter season are clearly the next challenges.

John Defterios, CNN, Davos.



ANDERSON: You're watching a special edition of CONNECT THE WORLD with me, Becky Anderson live from Muscat at this pivotal time for Oman. We've

already heard from the country's foreign minister, Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah on his relations with Iran and with Yemen.

We're going to bring you much more analysis about Oman's role in the region later in the hour. First, though, the day's top stories for you

here on CNN.

And one journalist is on his way home to Australia, but two of his colleagues are still sitting in an Egyptian prison, their fate uncertain at

this hour. Peter Greste was freed on Sunday after spending more than a year in jail. Three Al Jazeera journalists were convicted of supporting

the now banned Muslim Brotherhood, sparking an international outcry.

And now, the same judge who sentenced them has just upheld the death sentence for 183 Muslim Brotherhood supporters. CNN's Ian Lee has been

following these latest developments from Cairo, and he joins me now.

Firstly, let's just talk about these sentences being upheld. Was this a surprise? Something that was expected in Cairo today?

IAN LEE, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Becky, this doesn't really come as a surprise. This judge is known for handing down harsh

sentences, 183 people having their sentence upheld for death. This is just one of numerous multiple cases where death sentences have been handed down,

hundreds of people are on death row, although none of those have been carried out.

But these trials don't -- have been condemned by rights groups. They don't last very long, some of them lasting two to three days before we get

these heavy sentences for hundreds of people. And when you -- the government is cracking down very hard, aggressively going after people that

they see have killed members of the security force. Also going aggressively after the Muslim Brotherhood.

But when you look on the flip side of that, thousands of people have been killed since the 2011 revolution, yet no one really has been held

accountable. The former president Hosni Mubarak and his interior minister were acquitted over the charges of killing hundreds of protesters. And so,

a lot of the people are wondering, where is the accountability here in Egypt?

ANDERSON: As we were pointing out before we started talking, this is the same judge who sentenced the Al Jazeera journalist Peter Greste,

clearly out of the country, to all and intents and purposes freed, although the Egyptians are calling this a deportation. What of the other two still

being held?

LEE: We just heard Peter Greste speak on Al Jazeera in his first interview ever, and his thoughts were with those other two journalists,

Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed.

What we're hearing now, the rumors going around, is that Mohamed Fahmy could get the same deal as Peter Greste, although Mohamed Fahmy is a dual

national, he would have to surrender his Egyptian citizenship for this deal to go forward, for him to be deported.

And that, then, shifts the focus to Baher Mohamed. He is an Egyptian national, he has no other nationality. I talked to his wife. He is

optimistic that he will be released if the other two are released, but it will be very difficult for him as the law that the government is using to

get rid of Peter Greste and potentially Mohamed Fahmy would not apply to him, Becky.

ANDERSON: Meantime, just some context for our viewers. A security clampdown in the Sinai Peninsula by the president after a series of terror

attempts or terror attacks, as he has described them. Can you just describe the overarching feeling in Egypt so far as security is concerned

at present?

LEE: Well, this group, Welayet Sinai, or The State of Sinai, which pledged its allegiance to ISIS last year, has been almost on a daily basis

going after security forces. And I think this is the difference between this group, which pledged allegiance to ISIS and ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

This group almost exclusively targets the security forces, although civilians have been killed in the past.

But we've seen very bold, very brazen attacks by them. Last October, we saw over 30 soldiers killed in an attack. Just last month, we saw

another 30 soldiers attacked. Every time we see this, the government promises, they pledge to go more aggressively against them, but we're still

getting these attacks.

Talking to people who are in the Sinai, who've been working the Sinai, they tell me that if the government really wants to defeat this group,

they're going to have to win the hearts and minds of the people on the ground there, the local residents, who right now are very suspicious of the

central government here in Cairo, Becky.

ANDERSON: Ian Lee is reporting for you from Cairo this hour.

The Jordanian government continues its effort to free a military pilot who was captured by ISIS in December. Now, a government spokesman tells

CNN that repeated requests for proof that the pilot is still alive have not been answered. However, officials say they will press forward. ISIS has

said it would kill him if a convicted terrorist isn't released.

Meanwhile in Japan, friends and family of a journalist apparently killed by the militant group are mourning, but they are also talking about

Kenji Goto's enormous passion for reporting and his selfless dedication to telling the story, even though it put him in harm's way. CNN correspondent

Will Ripley with this report.



WILL RIPLEY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): When the world around him was at its worst, friends of Kenji Goto say he was at his



RIPLEY: A heart that pulled Goto where few others dared to go.

NAKAI: I found him a bit different from the others.

RIPLEY: Hiromasa Nakai remembers Goto's strong handshake and his even stronger passion for journalism.

RIPLEY (on camera): Why do you think he went into dangerous places like Aleppo? Like Iraq?

NAKAI: Because he wanted to tell us their stories.

RIPLEY (voice-over): Stories he shared with anyone who'd listen, giving lectures like this one for UNICEF last year about Syria's bloody


KENJI GOTO, JOURNALIST: Syrian people suffering three years and a half.

RIPLEY: Goto made this video in late October, just before what would be his final trip to Syria. He disappeared hours later in ISIS-held

territory and reappeared about two weeks ago in this propaganda video, next to his friend, Haruna Yukawa, captured by ISIS two months earlier.

RIPLEY (on camera): Why do you think he went to Syria?

TAKEHARU WATAI, JOURNALIST: Maybe he wanted to rescue Mr. Yukawa.

RIPLEY (voice-over): Longtime friend and fellow war zone journalist Takeharu Watai says Goto always made time to call his family when he was on

the road, which made his direct pleas to his wife, Rinko, in separate ISIS videos last week all the more heartbreaking.

WATAI: Why they kill him?

RIPLEY: The final video showed Goto facing death with courage and dignity. "I have nothing now but tears," said his mother hours after the

news broke. Japanese newspapers printed special editions. Goto was the lead story on every channel. Protesters stood in silence.

WATAI: It's very sad, but Japanese journalists, you have to go for coverage in war zones.

RIPLEY: Watai fears Goto paid the price for his prime minister's public pledge to support the coalition against ISIS. He says despite the

risk, he's willing to go back.

WATAI: We have to continue, people like him.

RIPLEY: He says Goto's final story is his own life, a story of kindness, courage, and compassion. A story to share with Goto's two young

daughters, who lost their father to the same conflict he dedicated his life to covering.

Will Ripley, CNN, Tokyo.


ANDERSON: I want to shift our focus, now, to West Africa, where Boko Haram has now been pushed back twice from a key city it's trying to take

over near the border with Chad and Cameroon. Now, the militant group launched a second attack on Maiduguri on Sunday, but their fighters, we're

told, met stiff resistance from soldiers and vigilantes.

Now, hours after hours of explosions and gunfire, residents say Boko Haram gunmen were forced to retreat. This fight for Maiduguri comes less

than two weeks, of course, before Nigeria's presidential election.

I want to bring you CNN's Diana Magnay, who is joining us now from Johannesburg in South Africa with more. And as we speak, I just want to

bring up the video of the aftermath, Diana, of Sunday's attack. Tell us what we know.

DIANA MAGNAY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think the video that you're looking at now is the aftermath of an attack in another

town of Gombe. There were various attacks over the course of Sunday. I think the most crucial is this attempt by Boko Haram to seize Maiduguri,

which is the capital of Borno state. It is clearly in their sights.

If they take the capital of that state, they will effectively control the entire state itself. They tried to seize the town last Sunday, they

tried again this Sunday.

And both times, as you said, vigilantes and the Nigerian military managed to repel them with fighter jets and the rest of it. Maiduguri is

extremely important because it's the center of the Nigerian military's efforts to flush out Boko Haram from the northeast of Nigeria.

The video that you were seeing was of a suicide attack in a town called Gombe. That is the town where President Goodluck Jonathan has just

finished a campaign rally today. And just an hour after he left the city, there was another suicide blast.

It happened just a few hours ago, now, so we don't have video yet from that blast. But I've just got off the phone with the state police

spokesman, who says that it was a female suicide bomber. One other person was killed in that blast alongside the suicide bomber, six others who were


And he said that she was quite a distance away from the stadium, where Goodluck Jonathan, the president, had just held his rally. But it just

goes to show you how difficult, how dangerous the climate is as these two candidates tour the country of Nigeria.

Muhammadu Buhari, the main contender in this election race, will be coming to Gombe again tomorrow. The state police spokesman said that that

was still on track and he would be attending.

But you see, Boko Haram is clearly targeting campaign rallies. Two weeks ago in Maiduguri -- sorry, a week ago in Maiduguri, the president had

just left not 24 hours before. And if you think about it, the idea of democracy, the idea of voting is something that Boko Haram is entirely

opposed to. So, you see how heated and how violent this environment is in the weeks ahead of this election, Becky.

ANDERSON: Yes. Well, security and insecurity very much making the headlines as we move through this show. Diana, thank you.

I want to take a step back for a moment -- and we'll be doing a lot of this over the coming months. The stories that we've brought you in the

last ten minutes or so have a common factor. We hear so often about hard- line interpretations of Islam and the violent acts committed by ISIS and other states and non-states alike in its name.

They dominate the headlines, but they are not the whole story. So, what is it? Well, CONNECT THE WORLD wants to take a fresh look at the vast

and varied Muslim world and the debates and divisions that are apparent within it as we enter what is this new year.

So, do join us on Thursday for the first show, live from the Islamic art hub of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. And every Thursday after

that on your screens and on land, we're going to take you across the globe as we explore Islam in 2015 on CONNECT THE WORLD with me, Becky Anderson.

Well, we are live tonight from the Omani capital of Muscat. Coming up, we find out which Middle Eastern country is lining up American football

players, hoping to get NFL stars a run for their money.

And from sleepy sultanate to lion of discreet diplomacy, Oman is now mediating some of the Middle East's most complex negotiations. So, what is

behind that transformation? That up next.


ANDERSON: A very good evening from Oman. I'm Becky Anderson, this is CONNECT THE WORLD on CNN. And we are in Muscat this evening, the city,

broadcasting tonight from the capital of what is widely seen as a Middle East success story.

Oman is stable in a region full of turmoil. It has also used its oil wealth wisely. Leader Sultan Qaboos is praised at home and abroad for

modernizing this Gulf nation and making sure the benefits are felt widely by his subjects, though there were some protests here during the Arab

Spring, it has to be remembered.

Well, most of the four million residents of Oman have known no ruler other than Sultan Qaboos. He has been at the very heart of the entire

system here since he assumed power in 1974. He is -- in 1970, sorry. He's 74, and it's no secret that he has been in ill health.

I'm joined again by Scott Armstrong, chief executive editor of "The Times of Oman" here in Muscat. They call him the diplomat sultan. Hasn't

been in the public eye of late. Went to Munich in July. We know that he has been ill. What do you know about his psyche, his character, and the

character of the Omanis that make them as important in this kind of mediation role as they are these days?

SCOTT ARMSTRONG, CHIEF EXECUTIVE EDITOR, "TIMES OF OMAN": Well, the Omanis to start with are a very hospitable people. They're very warm,

they're very curious. They want to talk to you, they want to find out where you're from. As a nation, they've been a nation of traders going

back centuries.

So, there is a peace and stability is a way of life for them. It's just built into their DNA. Their extremism is just not part of the

conversation here. Tolerance is a way of life for them.

That has extended, so it's a case of kind of nature and nurture, because Sultan Qaboos, his majesty, his wise leadership over the past 40

years has -- he's been an ultimate role model for the people as well.

ANDERSON: So, as the country begins to look towards the future, Qaboos has no sons and has not publicly designated an heir, which in a

monarchy like this does mean that succession is uncertain. What are the challenges that any new leadership here will face?

ARMSTRONG: I think the biggest challenge and their biggest opportunity ate same time is to make sure that they protect the legacy,

what's been achieved over the last 40 years. And maintain that. Diplomacy, Stability, and just that way -- peaceful way - of life.

ANDERSON: How does -- this country do that when you -- it depends so much on oil, as many of these regional players do? It looks for 2015

budget with an oil price of around $75 on the barrel. It's nothing close to that at present.

So, dwindling revenues would equal higher taxes and shorter investment in infrastructure going forward. That will be difficult, won't it?

ARMSTRONG: It's a challenge, but it's a challenge I think Oman's prepared to meet. Diversification is the key word here, that's what

everybody is talking about.

You look what they're investing. In infrastructure, they have the port project in Duqm, where they're trying to move up the oil stream. You

look at tourism, which is blossoming around the country. And the sultanate is an astonishingly beautiful place to visit. So, they're putting a lot of

investment into those projects.

Equally, the infrastructure. You talked to the ministers. They're not rolling back from infrastructure. They're committed to it. They know

they need to achieve this to help them move forward as a country.

And it is a big challenge because it's an enormous country. It's a big country. And when they want to build a road, they often have to go

through a mountain. But yes, diversification is one key for them, and trading with other partners in the region.

ANDERSON: As we -- briefly, as we've looked to a transition and new leadership in neighbor Saudi, there is evidence of a new generation there.

Should we expect the same here going forward?

ARMSTRONG: Again, as I said previously, Oman is very confident in itself. If you look at the Arab youth from last year and the year before,

the Omanis come out, even the young generation have had --


ARMSTRONG: -- but they've cherished their heritage. They are concerned about employment prospects moving forward, but they also came out

as one of the most entrepreneurial spirited young nations in the Gulf region.

So, they have all the ingredients to keep moving forward. Oman is not a country that shouts about its success. It keeps it to itself very much.

And I think that's one of the things that's helped it with diplomacy as well, because when people come to Oman to carry out the talks, they know

it's going to stay private, and they have that sense of security.

ANDERSON: Fascinating. Punching above its weight. It feels like a smallish nation, although it's a very big country, but a small nation of

people. Well, thank you very much. Scott Armstrong joining us tonight.

Live from Muscat, you're watching a special edition of CONNECT THE WORLD. We've explored the politics and the key people in what is a

fascinating country. But just ahead, we'll lighten the mood with a journey around some of the country's scenic and historic highlights for you.

And American football catching on in what is an unlikely spot. After the break, we meet the Emirati youngsters aiming for NFL.


ANDERSON: The sport's world's attention may have been fixed on Arizona and the Super Bowl this weekend, but a half a world away in the

UAE, American football is also drawing fans, as Amir Daftari explains.


AMIR DAFTARI, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Supporting from the sidelines of a sports field, this Emirati family

watches a game not usually associated with the UAE. American football has touched down in the country, and it's thriving, especially amongst the



ABDULLAH AL ALAWY, ABU DHABI SCORPIONS: The feeling you get when you just start running down the field with the ball and there's someone in

front of you, and you just know you can make it past them.

DAFTARI: Abdullah started playing just a few months ago, but he already says he'd like to become a professional and one day maybe even play

in the NFL. And he's got a lot of backing.

AL ALAWY: My family likes it because they think it's good for me to have sport, and a lot of my friends want to join as well, because they find

it cool that I'm doing something unique and different.

DAFTARI: It may be unique and different, but since it kicked off around two years ago, the Emirate's American football league has faced

quite a few obstacles.

DUSTIN CHERNIAWSKI, GENERAL MANAGER, EAFL: One of our biggest challenges was just getting equipment. Nobody around here sells equipment,

so we had to go into the United States, ship it out. Everything from mouth guards down to shoes, everything had to be shipped in.

At the beginning, two more challenges were officials. Not many officials happen to be in the Middle East, but also coaches. We had, I

think, seven coaches two and a half years ago, and now we've got 53. So, it was a little bit of just putting the call out to the community to say we

really need some help, and they showed up en masse.

DAFTARI: And involving the community is a key strategy for general manager Dustin Cherniawski. Not surprising, then, that like the UAE

itself, the league is incredibly diverse.

CHERNIAWSKI: I would say about a third of our athletes are from the United States and Canada, and the rest from everywhere else. And it's

really amazing, the thing that we hear over and over from these new nationalities that are playing is, "I've always wanted to play. I've

always wanted to try American football."

So, that's where we are. We're the opportunity for some of these guys to get a taste of authentic American football.

DAFTARI (on camera): American football in the UAE is still very much in its infancy, but with the enthusiasm I've seen both on and off the

field, this all-American sport seems certain to feature on the Emirati landscape for years to come.

DAFTARI (voice-over): And for football players from the UAE, the American dream is very much alive and kicking.

Amir Daftari, CNN, Abu Dhabi.


ANDERSON: British travel Bible "Wanderlust" revealed its top ten countries in the world to visit, as voted for by readers. At number six on

the list was Oman. If you've ever visited, it's easy to understand why.

Our producer Nicol Nicolson seems to spend more time here than he does in the office in Abu Dhabi, and we gave him a little bit of time tonight.

In tonight's Parting Shots, he offers his five reasons to make the trip here.


NICOL NICOLSON, CNN PRODUCER (voice-over): The waters around Oman are pristine, and they're perfect for snorkeling and diving, but you don't even

have to stick your head under water to appreciate the wildlife. Turtles nest in huge numbers on the beaches along the coast from the capital.

There's no shortage of historic buildings in Oman, but few are either as impressive or as atmospheric as Nizwa Fort, a couple of hours inland

from Muscat. The building dominates the former capital and gives visitors a wonderful panorama of the surrounding mountains.

Talking of those mountains, they're worth the visit in their own right. Jebel Akhdar, the Green Mountain, is home to a couple of luxury

hotels and some first-class hiking trails. But if you want a really wild experience, travel a little further to Jebel Shams, rising to 3,000 meters

above sea level, and home to Oman's very own Grand Canyon.

You don't even need to leave the capital to see some pretty dramatic sights. The combination of landscape and architecture around the sultan's

palace in Old Muscat is completely unique and very colorful.

But if you're craving a little bit of romance on your visit, it doesn't get better than a sunset cruise on a traditional dhow around the

stunning coastline. And sunsets are something that Oman does better than anywhere.


ANDERSON: Postcards from Oman for you, where we've been broadcasting CONNECT THE WORLD with me, Becky Anderson. Thank you for watching. From

the team here, it is a very good evening.