Norway is one of the world's richest countries, but is trying to wean itself from over-reliance on oil
Norway is a mountainous country with a distinctively complex coastline. Much of the landscape consists of rolling plateaux, called ‘vidder’, interspersed with high peaks. To the west the mountains descend steeply to the coast which, during the Ice Age, was deeply cut by glaciers creating long, narrow inlets, the ‘fjords’, beyond which lie hundreds of islands. Though one-third of the country is above the Arctic Circle, the warm waters of the gulf stream usually keep the fjords above freezing point.
Norway is ethnically fairly homogenous. Almost everyone speaks the same language, though this exists in two mutually intelligible forms. The older of the two, Bokmål, is more widely used—in the national newspapers and in most schools—and is the product of previous centuries of Danish occupation of Norway. ‘New Norwegian’, Nynorsk, is both newer and older—the result of efforts to revive earlier dialects of Norse.
The oldest minority are the country's original inhabitants, the Sami, who herd their reindeer in the far north. But from the 1980s Norway started to receive significant flows of asylum seekers, first from Asia and Africa and later from former Yugoslavia. By 2008, 9% of the population were foreign born. Norway occupies first place in the UNDP human development index—a reflection of the country's wealth and its comprehensive system of welfare.
Norway's economic prospects were transformed in 1962 by the discovery of the Ekofisk oilfield in the North Sea. This and numerous other fields discovered subsequently have made Norway the world's fifth-largest oil exporter. Oil production is now declining though this is partly offset by exports of gas.
Oil and gas have fuelled Norway's economic growth and provided more than half of export income, and in around one-quarter of government revenue. Unlike many other countries, Norway has been setting much of this windfall aside, into the ‘Government Pension Fund–Global’, which by 2005 had reached $165 billion. One disadvantage of the oil bonanza, however, is that it has stifled investment in other activities. Manufacturing, for example, accounts for only 19% of GDP. Meanwhile, some older industries have been stagnating.
Norway's dramatic, serrated coastline has ensured a close relationship with the sea, and the country has established a strong shipping industry that has given it around 10% of the world's commercial fleet—including one-quarter of all cruise vessels and 20% of gas and chemical tankers.
Agriculture has long been in decline, though the government has subsidized it heavily and agriculture still employs 4% of the labour force. Fishing too—for herring, cod, and mackerel—has also declined as a result of over-fishing.
Despite weakness outside the oil sector, Norway's unemployment rate in 2009 was only around 3%.
Norwegians reject EU membership
Norway is a constitutional monarchy, currently ruled by King Harald, who acceded to the throne in 1991. For most of the 20th century Norway was governed by the social-democratic Labour Party. One of the leading figures in the 1980s and 1990s was Gro Harlem Brundtland, who was a Labour prime minister in the periods 1986–89 and 1990–99. Brundtland applied for Norwegian membership of the EU and achieved significant concessions. But the electorate did not share her enthusiasm and in a referendum in 1994 declined to join—52% voted against. Brundtland resigned in 1996. She had already been a major international figure, having chaired the World Commission on Environment and Development, and later served as head of the World Health Organization.