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."