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 race and gender under law -- unprecedented in its comprehensiveness in the conservative Gulf. Oman has no political prisoners, a rarity in the region. And it has a long tradition of religious tolerance, due in part to its Ibadhi sect's interpretation of Islam. The sultan himself has allocated land for Western churches and Hindu temples. It seems clear that he intends to move toward representative government and the rule of law, but at a measured pace, when his people are ready. "You can't push things too far or too fast in the Gulf," he told me in flawless English during a three-hour interview at his palace in Muscat in February.


jm: Your Majesty, are you concerned about Washington's "dual containment" policy towards Iran and Iraq?

qs: Nations should be talking to one another. Iran is the largest country in the Gulf, with 65 million people. You cannot isolate it. You can be frank in expressing your grievances -- and we are. I don't mince my words. I tell them that the whole world is beginning to work together, that they can't sit apart and go on without the rest of the world. They can't survive if they do. When I talk to some officials, I'm encouraged by their response. The issue is whether they can impress the others sufficiently.

Iraq is a different matter. Economic sanctions must remain until Iraq completely abides by the U.N. resolutions adopted at the Gulf War's end. Iraq violated the international code of conduct by invading a neighbor and by amassing weapons of mass destruction, far more than what was needed to defend itself. So no violation of the resolution, no detail, can be overlooked.

jm: But Washington justifies sanctions against Iran by citing Tehran's support for terrorism, its opposition to Arab- Israeli peace, and its own intensive efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction. Europe has failed in its quest for constructive engagement. Why not try isolation?

qs: I know that dealing with Tehran can be very difficult. Iran has different factions in its leadership. There are those willing to try to make Iran do what is needed to take its rightful place in the international community. But there is another side that lives in its own world, not in ours. Then there is a third faction that waits, and whose exact views are unclear. There is a hidden power struggle. My view is: if the government can bring itself to take a different approach to the West, one that produces benefits, then the third faction might support greater pragmatism. But there is no easy solution. Time will tell.


jm: Are you content with the Arab- Israeli peace process since Israel agreed to redeploy in Hebron? What other tracks now deserve priority?

qs: The Palestinians remain the core of the problem. The second line is Syria and Lebanon. For Lebanon, the issue is one of security since Israel has not annexed any Lebanese territory. For its part, Syria wants to restart talks where they left off, which is not an unreasonable request. They don't want to return to square one all the time. Based on my conversations with Syria's leaders, I'm convinced they want peace, a comprehensive peace. There is no doubt. So once the Golan Heights issue is solved, there shouldn't be any problem with Syria.

But the big issue for us, particularly in the Gulf, is Jerusalem -- guaranteed access to the city's holy sites, which is crucial for us, and the separate issue of who lives where. I don't want to speculate about how Jerusalem should be tackled or settled. That should be left to those concerned. Each side is aware of the other's political constraints. The rest of us should not intervene or pressure. Oman will support the Palestinians in whatever agreement they reach with Israel.

jm: But haven't senior Arab officials threatened to resume the economic boycott of Israel if the talks collapse?

qs: We watch the political thermometer closely. When it's hot, we make our views known to the Israelis. But a resumption of the boycott is not a possibility, happily. And quite frankly, I hope it's not on anyone's list. The boycott never worked anyway. We have walked so many kilometers towards peace that it would be tragic to start going backwards now.


jm: You were nearly killed in a car accident two years ago in which your finance minister died. Did the accident prompt you to issue your remarkable Basic Law? Did it enhance your concern about succession?

qs: We used to be governed in a very traditional way. When I was entrusted to be the sultan, I already had some views about how the country should be ruled. I had spent six years living in Britain [1958-64] experiencing work in different sectors. That background gave me a good basis for thinking about things differently.

I had promised on the first day of my rule to create a modern government. But I knew change had to be entered into slowly, very slowly. The level of education had to reach a certain point so that people would know what we were talking about. We went from almost zero schools to more than a thousand and a university in 25 years. I had already established a Consultative Council, but one whose members were appointed by me, not elected. But it was all coming together. As I approached my silver jubilee, I said to myself: this is the time.

So I got together four of my most trusted people -- all Omanis. I sat with them and told them exactly what I had in mind. I gave them a year to formulate it in a legal document. Then we had a second review, and then a final session.

I announced it on my annual "Meet the People" tour while encamped in the desert in the heart of Oman. Then I waited for the reaction, which was very good. Now the Basic Law is being implemented through laws and regulations. I had hoped that this could be done within two years, but that period may have to be extended for an additional year. We'll see. By the year 2,000, I want it implemented.

My first priority is to establish a judicial system -- a Supreme Court and other judges and courts. [At present there is no such court in any of the Gulf countries.] The Supreme Court will be the guardians of the law. Without that you can't have a proper government. They are the ones to say what is right and wrong. My role is to see that the interests of the people are taken into account. It's not my role to interpret the law. Only if certain basic things go wrong would I intervene, as would any head of state. And I will appoint the judges.

jm: Your Majesty, does your new Basic Law address local concerns about influence peddling by barring ministers from holding senior business posts?

qs: Islam gives people the right to own private businesses. But no minister should use his public post for private gain. So those who hold senior public posts should resign from their private boards. We'll also look at whether their family members should also resign. The people I chose were selected because I trusted them, not because they are my friends or relatives. If they go astray, I'll find someone else. I feel strongly about this.

jm: You have said that you hope the Majlis' 80 members will eventually be elected and that the parliament's mandate will expand to making rather than simply reviewing and suggesting laws. Should a sultan eventually be elected?

qs: At present, people throughout the country meet in their districts and select two or three Majlis candidates, and we choose among them. In the long run, the Majlis will be elected, yes, by all Omanis. And the Majlis' powers will expand with time, but slowly, so there are no earthquakes. But we are still largely a tribal society, and it's still the government's duty to defend the country. The man in the street often doesn't want or know how to deal with foreign governments or defend the country. He trusts me to do it. That is why these areas have been excluded from the Majlis debate. In this part of the world, giving too much power too fast can still be exploited. Elections in many countries mean having the army prevent bloodshed. Is this democracy? Are these happy countries? Do such elections give people real choices? No. They are really just power struggles. I'm against creating such situations when people aren't ready for them.

As for the sultan, he is already elected, but not in the way you know. In Oman, you have to earn kingship. We have no heirs apparent. I myself did not become sultan until a week after the event [deposing his father]. I was only sayyid, that is, roughly, lord, until key members of my family and the other leading tribes approved me.

As for a successor, the process, always known to us, has now been publicized in the Basic Law. When I die, my family will meet. If they cannot agree on a candidate, the Defense Council will decide, based on a name or names submitted by the previous sultan.

I have already written down two names, in descending order, and put them in sealed envelopes in two different regions.


jm: What are some of your proudest accomplishments?

qs: I congratulate myself for some things, such as the progress women have made. I never said you must do this or you can't do that. I offered services, such as education, and let the families decide. And more of them than I expected chose to accept schools for girls from the beginning. So we have been able to make progress and safeguard tradition.

jm: Why haven't the more radical provisions of your Basic Law, such as equal rights for women, been challenged by militant Islamists as "un-Islamic"?

qs: Islam is not opposed to progress. You can't stop evolution. And while we believe that certain traditions should be observed, Islam provides for ijtihad, for everything being reviewed and interpreted in the time and context of the moment. Those who argue differently are using Islam for their own political reasons. They twist things, and they give our religion the wrong image. There is nothing in Islam that prevents a society from living in its day within a framework of tradition. Even in the time of the Prophet, women took their rightful place in society.

There should be no discrimination against working women. They should have the same job titles, salaries, and benefits.

The problem now is that more and more ladies want jobs. So men are feeling the heat. They're competing with us! I say, why not? We have senior ladies in government. I hope we'll have some more senior women in government soon. We're making progress, but quietly. Slowly. I believe in evolution, and not a sudden evolution. But the progress we've made is irreversible.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • Judith Miller, author of God Has Ninety-Nine Names: Reporting from a Militant Middle East, is a senior writer and former Cairo bureau chief for The New York Times.
  • More By Judith Miller