The Sultanate of Oman has long been known for discretion in its affairs. Until 1970, the strategically placed country, the size of Colorado with two million people and 1,000 miles of coastline along the Gulf of Oman and Arabian Sea, was virtually cut off from the world. Ruled by an eccentric autocrat, Said bin Taymur, who tried to shut Oman off by, among other things, banning sunglasses and severely restricting education and foreign travel, Oman received few visitors other than British officers who had helped him suppress a series of rebellions in the interior in the 1950s.
Eager to develop his country and encouraged by the British who had educated him, Qabus bin Said, the sultan's only son, overthrew his father in a bloodless coup in 1970. Twenty-seven years later, Oman has been transformed. The country now has a modern infrastructure, spotless streets, and a highly professional military that devotes much of its budget to civic action. Yet it retains its identity.
Sultan Qabus, 56, has charted an independent course for his country. In 1979 Oman was the only Arab state to recognize President Anwar al-Sadat's peace accords with Israel and today is the only Gulf state with a trade office in Tel Aviv. In 1980 it signed an agreement granting American ships and planes access to Oman's military facilities, access that the allies credit with having shaved months off preparation time for the Persian Gulf War. The sultanate, however, advised by the British, who continued staffing senior posts as late as 1990, still tolerated few outsiders. There were no tourist visas.
Now the country is in the midst of another dramatic change. Oman is opening up -- discreetly as usual. The sultan has convened a Majlis al-Shura, or Consultative Council, a partially elected parliament, which includes the only two women holding elected office in the Gulf region. Last November he unveiled a revolutionary Basic Law, in effect an Islam-based constitution, complete with a bill of rights that guarantees freedom of the press, religious tolerance, and equality of