Our Man in Oman

Our Man in Oman

Our Man in Oman

A cheat sheet for the news.
Oct. 16 2001 3:00 AM

Our Man in Oman

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

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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."

Ken Silverstein is a contributing editor at Harper's magazine.