A Former Hermit Kingdom, Oman Emerges From Shell

By John Daniszewski
Los Angeles Times
Friday , December 17, 1999 ; H10

MUSCAT, Oman –– There once was a boy who was shunned by his wealthy and powerful father. He was sent to a foreign land to be educated. To support himself, he had to join a foreign army. When at last his father sent for him, the young man hurried home full of expectations--only to learn he was to be kept out of sight.

It was an unpromising beginning to an Arabian tale, but it had a happy ending for the boy, now known as Sultan Qaboos bin Said, supreme ruler of the Sultanate of Oman.

There are few countries in the world that have come so far so fast under the rule of one man.

At a time when many people think of the Middle East as unsafe, prone to violence, discriminatory toward women and minorities, chaotic and backward, Oman presents another picture. It is clean, pleasant, stable, progressive. It prides itself on creating opportunity for all its citizens.

This has much to do with Qaboos, who in 1970 deposed his father, Said bin Taimur, in a bloodless coup aided by relatives conspiring with the British army. His father was tied to a stretcher and put on a plane for London. And Qaboos went straight to work letting fresh air into what previously had been known as the hermit kingdom of the Middle East.

Three decades ago, Oman's customs harked back to the Middle Ages. The wooden gates to Muscat, the capital, were closed each night to keep out intruders, and anyone walking about in the darkness (there was no electricity) was required by law to carry a lantern or risk being shot as a thief by city guards. The country had only three miles of paved road and 12 telephones.

Today, Oman is a paragon of development--blanketed by thousands of miles of highways, linked to the rest of the globe by the Internet and cellular telephones, open to commerce and tourism and building one of the largest container ports in the world to take advantage of its location on the world's main east-west shipping lanes.

It also is one of the most tolerant countries in its region. The sultan has built churches and a Hindu temple for the Christian and Indian minorities amid the large Muslim majority. He has spearheaded the cause of women's rights, admitting women to his Consultative Council and allowing them to serve as deputy ministers, a first for any government in the Persian Gulf region. He also appointed the first female ambassador from an Arab Gulf country.

The 59-year-old Qaboos, like several other of the emirs, sheiks and kings still in power in the Arab world, has been attempting to adapt the traditional monarchy to modern demands.

How has Qaboos effected improvements? It has not been by coercion. The country has a small police force and an even smaller army, both of which are almost invisible compared with those in other Arab nations. And it's not oil money alone that has facilitated Oman's advances--the country has less per capita than any other Gulf state except Bahrain, and it has had to spread spending over a much larger, geographically diverse area, approximately the size of New Mexico.

Qaboos said in a recent interview that one key to his success has been leveling with his people.

"I always try to be honest with them," he said.

Relations between the Arabs and Israelis is one sphere where Qaboos has been candid. Unlike other Arab leaders who fulminate against Israel in public and quietly say in private that peace with the Jewish state is inevitable and a necessity, Qaboos has been frank about accepting Israel as a permanent state in the Middle East.

"We cannot continue to have conflicts and hostilities for the rest of our lives," he said. "We have a responsibility for the generations who come after us."

Qaboos preferred to win the loyalty of his subjects not by holding back the clock but by encouraging modernization--in the form of education, commerce, technology and democracy. In the interview, he said his greatest pride is the state's Sultan Qaboos University, established in 1985, where--he noted proudly--a majority of the students are women. His government has announced plans to charter four more private institutions of higher learning.

The government also wants to diversify the economy before Oman's oil runs out, which by some estimates will be in about 25 years, and has set a goal of 90 percent "Omanization" of the work force by 2010--the replacement of most of the 500,000 foreign guest workers now in the country with Omani nationals.

But to do that, the sultan said, Oman needs to raise skill levels, and the new private universities will be key to training people in fields the private sector wants.

"You are teaching people to look after themselves, and that is the most important thing," he said.

Oman is also the only Persian Gulf country to have a Basic Law, or constitution, that guarantees inalienable rights to its citizens. And in the interview, Qaboos said he was about to institute the region's first independent judiciary to guard those rights.

The sultan says he is moving to transform the Consultative Council into a full-fledged parliament. Until now, he has retained the right to appoint the members from a pool of candidates approved by voters. But in the interview, he said he plans to give up that prerogative and allow direct elections next year.

Aside from his late mother and a small circle of friends, including a coterie of British ex-officers from his army days, the sultan has been alone in his work. He married only briefly, a union that produced no heir, but he insists that his lack of progeny is no problem for the country of institutions that he is building.

Each year, before National Day, the sultan's birthday, Qaboos has made a habit of touring the country with his ministers, camping for a few days in each region and meeting with the people.

Although Qaboos's family has ruled Oman for 250 years, for much of that time its grip on the interior was tenuous at best, and the aim of the tour is in part to sustain and strengthen the bonds that exist between the sultan and the population, particularly the various tribal chieftains.

Qaboos explained that he never permits television to cover these encounters because "if there are cameras, I feel as though I am acting, and I don't like acting at all. I like to be absolutely honest with my people."

"It has not been easy, oh no, I'll tell you that," he remarked about his years in power--especially the first decade, when he was putting the country in order while fighting a Marxist-inspired insurrection in the south. But he said he feels able to relax more now that the foundations for the future have been laid.

"It is an art," he said of running a country well. "Either you've got the touch to do it, or you don't."