The Slate Gist

Our Man in Oman

Could Sultan Qaboos bin Said be any nicer to the United States? 

Last week, British Prime Minister Tony Blair flew to the Gulf state of Oman, where some 23,000 British troops—as well as several dozen warships, fighter aircraft, and tanks—were taking part in exercises with their Omani counterparts. The exercises were scheduled before the attacks in New York and Washington, but they demonstrate the close relationship between the West and the sultanate, which for the last three decades has collaborated with both British intelligence and the CIA to mutual advantage. As the United States and its allies launch ground operations in Afghanistan, Oman and the British troops stationed there could play a crucial role.

With the possible exception of the United Arab Emirates, Oman is the West’s closest ally in the Middle East. In the aftermath of the first U.S. and British bombing runs on Afghanistan, violent riots erupted in various parts of the Muslim world. In Oman, about 1,000 students showed up for a peaceful demonstration in Muscat, the capital. “[The U.S. has] a more developed military infrastructure in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, but those states are far more concerned with their Islamic opposition,” says James Phillips, a Middle East analyst at the Heritage Foundation. “Oman has more freedom to conduct foreign and defense policies.”

Roughly the size of Kansas and with a population of 2.6 million, Oman sits at the eastern edge of the Arabian Peninsula and shares borders with Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and the UAE. The country’s economy is largely dependent on oil, which accounts for about 70 percent of export earnings and provides roughly the same share of the government’s budget.

The key to Oman’s pro-West tilt is Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who has ruled since overthrowing his father in a British-backed coup in 1970 when he was 29 years old. (The family has ruled Oman for the past 250 years.) The sultan has been more enlightened than his father—at the time of the coup Oman had only three schools, one hospital, and a few miles of paved roads—and his nation’s brand of Islam is relatively flexible by the standards of the Gulf states. Women hold professional and government jobs, including four that serve on the sultan’s Consultative Council. “He transformed the place from a medieval outpost into a more modern state,” says Gary Sick, a former Middle East adviser on the National Security Council. “Most Omanis like and admire him.”

Still, the sultan rules as an all-powerful monarch. There are no opposition parties, and public criticism of the sultan is prohibited by law. He appoints his Cabinet and the upper chamber of the national legislature. The lower chamber has only advisory powers and is elected by 175,000 voters approved by the government and tribal chieftains. If the sultan doesn’t like the election results, he can overturn them.

The British have played an extraordinary role in Oman ever since the coup. For more than a decade afterward, British officers commanded all branches of Oman’s armed forces and hundreds more were “on loan” to the sultanate. No one was more influential in Oman than Timothy Landon, an officer in the British Special Air Services who was a classmate of the sultan’s at Sandhurst, the British military academy. He counseled the sultan on the coup, helped put down a leftist insurrection soon afterward, and later served as the rough equivalent of Oman’s national security adviser.

Washington also placed a variety of people in sensitive positions in Oman, which it viewed as a template for the sort of friendly, oil-exporting regime that Washington wanted to establish in the Middle East. One key player was James Critchfield, president of a Honeywell Inc. subsidiary called Tetra Tech International, which managed oil, gas, and water projects in the strategic Masandam Peninsula. It sits on the Strait of Hormuz, through which much of the West’s oil is transported.

Before taking the post at Tetra, Critchfield, who served as a personal adviser to the sultan, had headed the CIA’s Middle East desk. “We played a major role in the development of Oman,” say Critchfield, who is now retired. “The sultan was a hugely intelligent man who was superb to work with.”

By the mid-’80s, the sultan had become an even more reliable ally than the leaders of key nations like Saudi Arabia and Egypt. A 1985 New York Times story on the special friendship between Washington and Muscat called Oman “a base for Western intelligence operations, military maneuvers and logistical preparations for any defense of the oil-producing Persian Gulf.”

The sultan also offered a hand to a variety of U.S. covert operations. His nation became a listening post for monitoring events in Iran after Ayatollah Khomeini took power and served as a major transshipment point for weapons sent by the CIA to mujahideen guerrillas in Afghanistan. “Through the toughest years of the Cold War, from the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan until Gorbachev took power, Oman was extraordinarily pro-West,” says a former American intelligence officer. “The Saudis were always ready to provide us with money. The Omanis did that, and much more.”

In return for its help, Oman received large deliveries of American military equipment and a variety of less tangible rewards. During the Arab oil embargo against the United States and other countries friendly with Israel, Ashland Oil made millions of dollars of illegal payments to secure business in Oman. The Justice Department began an investigation but never pursued the matter aggressively. According to the intelligence officer, the matter ultimately “went away” in thanks for Oman’s support for American covert activities.

Today, Oman offers rhetorical support for Arab causes and maintains close ties with a number of anti-American neighbors, especially Iran, but it continues to cooperate with the West on a broad range of issues. The sultan has been a leading proponent of Arab-Israeli peace talks, though he’s cooled since Ariel Sharon became prime minister. In prior years, he received Israeli premiers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres in Muscat. When an Israeli extremist assassinated Rabin, the sultan sent his minister of foreign affairs to the funeral.

Oman never joined OPEC and has rarely sided with Iran and other “price hawks” among Arab oil exporters. According to Gas Market Trends, a newsletter published by the Arab Press Service, the sultan’s advisers on oil policy in recent years have included Orin Atkins, who was chairman of Ashland Oil when the company sent oil bribes to Oman.

Most observers say that the sultan faces little dissent—few expect his support for the war in Afghanistan to create any serious trouble for the regime—but it’s hard to know for sure since he doesn’t tolerate any. (The recent anti-war demonstrations were clearly OK’d by the government as a safety valve measure.) “The country has no formal democratic political institutions, and its citizens do not have the ability peacefully to change their leaders or the political system,” the State Department’s annual report on human rights released last February says of Oman.

In any event, the sultan’s longstanding support for the West means that he can count on assistance from powerful friends in the event of an internal or external threat to his throne. His primary concern is the possibility of a domestic radical Islamic movement. In 1994, the government arrested 200 people belonging to a group called the Muslim Brotherhood, which it charged was plotting to overthrow the sultan. “Oman has diplomatic and commercial relationships with just about everyone, but it has strong security and military relationships with only the United Kingdom and the United States,” says David Mack, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. “If you’re a weak state in a nasty area, that’s a smart policy.”

In the past few weeks, the United States and Britain have been working hard to ensure the fullest possible cooperation from Oman in regard to military operations in Afghanistan. Six days before Blair’s visit, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld came calling on the sultan; the same day the Pentagon announced it would sell Oman 12 F-16 fighters and other military equipment valued at a total of $1.1 billion.

Oman may not allow direct airstrikes from its territory—that’s probably too much to ask even from the usually compliant sultan—but it is likely to play an important role as the war unfolds. Phillips of the Heritage Foundation says Omani ports can be used to refuel naval vessels and to resupply aircraft carrier battle groups. Patrick Clawson, research director at the Washington Institute of Near East Policy, notes that the Pentagon has large amounts of ammunition and Air Force equipment pre-positioned in the sultanate. “Oman is about as close to Afghanistan as you can get, beyond the countries that directly border it,” he says. “It would be a very convenient place to operate.”

Oman’s role could be especially important if Western intelligence can pin down Osama Bin Laden to a relatively small area. “If we can find him, we’ll send in ground troops to try to surround him,” says the former intelligence officer. “That would probably mean U.S. troops coming in from the north from Uzbekistan and British troops deploying out of Oman.”