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In the Persian Gulf, America's Friend Indeed—and in Need—is the Sultan of Oman

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Imagine an elderly, cantankerous sultan terrified of losing power, who issues a series of edicts: Gates to the capital city will be locked at dusk, with stragglers executed on the spot; any citizen walking at night must carry a kerosene lantern; no one may ride a bicycle without a permit (rarely granted); smoking, drinking and listening to the radio are forbidden. Surrounded by 500 slaves and 150 concubines, the old tyrant is afraid of his handsome young son and imprisons him inside the palace. Then, after seven years of captivity, the son overthrows his father, declares himself sultan and promises a new age to his grateful subjects.

This may sound like a chapter from Arabian Nights, but it is in fact the story of the rise of Qaboos bin Said—the Sultan of Oman, who controls access to the strategic Persian Gulf and thus to the world’s oil supply. Half of all the petroleum on the international market passes through the Strait of Hormuz, which narrows to 24 miles where it is flanked by Iran to the north and Oman to the south. When President Carter warned in his State of the Union message two weeks ago that a Soviet attack in the Persian Gulf region would be “repelled by use of any means necessary,” he was explicitly placing the American umbrella over the Sultan and his small nation. At the moment the 39-year-old ruler is nervously watching Russian troops only 300 miles away in Afghanistan—not to mention a Soviet intelligence ship anchored ominously in the strait.

Oman is scheduled to become a port of call for stepped-up American military presence in the gulf region, but the Sultan has rejected the idea of a permanent U.S. base. “People like to see their friends help them without imposing upon them,” he advises Americans. “The Russians are allowed to help their friends, the West is not,” he notes ironically. “Get rid of that thinking. You are inhibited by it.”

At a minimum, the Sultan wants U.S. military aid—”weapons, helicopters, radar and minesweepers”—to help him patrol the strait, a job handled by the Iranians until the downfall of the Shah. As a Western-oriented monarch trying to lead his backward Islamic nation rapidly into the 20th century, Qaboos is understandably troubled by the revolution in Iran, but he stresses the differences between the deposed Shah and himself. “The Shah made the mistake of taking on the religious authorities head-on,” the Sultan told a recent visitor. “The thing to do is to open the door for Western technology and then let the people decide. They will choose it.”

The first time Qaboos tried to open the doors of Oman was in 1963. He had graduated from Sandhurst, Britain’s West Point, and had returned to his homeland filled with ideas for reform and modernization. Within weeks his father ordered him locked up. “When I came back, I thought that surely I would be allowed to help develop my country,” he reminisces sadly. “In the beginning, it never entered my mind that I would eventually have to do what I did. But by 1970 things were not going well at all: People were fed up, and the country was getting empty as people went abroad. It came very suddenly to my mind that I had to do something to save the situation.”

After seven years of imprisonment in the small mud palace of Salalah, deprived of companions and books (except those smuggled to him by his mother), Qaboos conspired with local officials and his father’s British advisers to overthrow the reactionary and paranoid despot. The coup was bloodless—except for a minor wound inflicted when the old Sultan grabbed a gun and accidentally shot himself in the foot. Packed off to Claridge’s Hotel in London, the deposed monarch died in exile two years later.

The new Sultan—14th in the longest-ruling dynasty in the Arab world—lifted most of the onerous internal restrictions on his subjects but kept his country closed to foreigners. His most urgent priority was to quash a rebellion sponsored by Marxist South Yemen. By 1975 he had succeeded—and without inspiring charges of torture and brutality that have hounded the Shah. Since then Qaboos has financed his master plan for Oman with oil revenues totaling about $1.5 billion a year. He has built modern roads, hospitals and schools and introduced his subjects to such Western amenities as air conditioning and color television. “What gives me a lift of heart is the approval of the people,” he says. “They don’t ask you to do the impossible. They are ready to understand what is possible and what is not.”

The Sultan rules his kingdom (about 1.5 million people in an area the size of Kansas) as a patriarch. He chauffeurs himself through the countryside and will sometimes pick up an old man and invite him to his jewel-like, Indian-design palace. He and his appointed cabinet also spend an occasional month in remote villages, living in tents and discussing problems with grizzled tribesmen. Sometimes, like Harun al-Rashid in the Arabian Nights, Qaboos dresses as a commoner to visit a school or broadcasting station. Once, finding patients’ records scattered on the floor of a hospital, Qaboos slapped the worker responsible and packed him off to jail for the night, shouting angrily, “One of my subjects might have died because of you.”

Qaboos is also provoked by opponents of his campaign to improve the status of women. When one old chieftain told a government-sponsored conference on the subject that women are “furniture in the house for the use of men,” the Sultan made him apologize publicly. Most Omani women wear colorful dresses and may pursue professional careers. Curiously, though, among the elite, women still are veiled and remain secluded. The Sultan’s wife of four years, the Swiss-educated Sayyida Kamila, 18, is never seen publicly by men. (At a national celebration recently, she watched the parade from a smoked-glass booth.) Kamila is several inches taller than her husband (who is her first cousin), wears her black hair waist-length and limits her social appearances to gatherings of the wives of high-born Omanis. The Sultan has a private race track to train his stable and also enjoys gardening and classical music. One problem troubling the palace is that Kamila has not yet given Qaboos an heir.

The contradiction between the Sultan’s modern philosophy and his traditional home life is symptomatic of the progress Oman is making. Oman is a Muslim nation, but most of its citizens are members of the small Ibadhi sect, which is considerably more liberal than the harsh Shi’ite faith of the Ayatollah Khomeini (or even than the vast Sunni branch). On questions of public morality, the Sultan must continually decide which Western customs are acceptable. Kissing on Omani television is permissible, for example; a belly dancer at a government-owned hotel is not. Liquor is served in the modern hotels, but usually only to Westerners. The Sultan realizes that social forces can be as explosive as Soviet missiles. “Our aim is to educate the Omani people so they are able to serve the country, to take responsibility and, when the time comes and the people are capable, to be represented in the government,” he says. “I cannot say yet what form this will take, but it will be a form developed from our own religion and tradition—not imported from others.”

Geyer, a syndicated columnist, is one of the few Western journalists recently granted an audience with the Sultan at his palace in Muscat.