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 has had a happy ending for the boy, now known as Sultan Kaboos ibn Said, supreme ruler of the Sultanate of Oman, and especially for his 1.7 million people.
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 an opposite picture. It is clean, pleasant, stable, progressive. It prides itself on creating opportunity for all its citizens.
This has much to do with Kaboos, who in 1970 deposed his father, Said ibn 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 Kaboos went straight to work letting fresh air into what previously had been known as the hermit kingdom of the Middle East.
Three decades ago, the customs of Oman 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--webbed 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 himself has built churches and a Hindu temple for the Christian and Indian minorities amid the overwhelming 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. He also appointed the first female ambassador from an Arab gulf country.
It is rare on the eve of the 21st century for a traditional monarch to rule a state absolutely. The idea of a hereditary autocrat deciding what's best for a people began to go out of fashion in Europe more than 200 years ago.
But the 59-year-old Kaboos, like several other of the emirs, sheiks and kings still ruling in the Arab world, has been attempting to adapt the traditional monarchy to modern demands.
Arguably, Kaboos has been more successful than his peers. In Oman, there are no hints of political or fundamentalist dissent, as there are in Jordan or Morocco; little dynastic jockeying or rumors of gross corruption, as in Saudi Arabia or Kuwait; no sectarian differences, as in Bahrain; and no tension with neighbors, as in the United Arab Emirates.
Western observers living in Muscat cite as Oman's one looming difficulty the question of whether its economy, now starting to move from government-dominated to private-sector-led, will create enough jobs for the fast-growing younger generation.
A Place Where Rules Are Respected
Even in such mundane matters as buckling seat belts and refraining from littering, Omanis seem less recalcitrant and more law-abiding than people in other Arab countries. All government buildings are nonsmoking zones, and unlike in almost every other place in the region, such rules are respected.
How has Kaboos effected these 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 about the size of New Mexico.
Kaboos himself, in a recent interview, said one key to his success has been leveling with his people.
"I always try to be honest with them," he said.
Another is his penchant for patient, calculated actions.
"When you take a step, you ought to be worrying about the next step."
Relations between the Arabs and Israelis is one sphere where Kaboos 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, Kaboos has been frank about accepting Israel as a permanent state in the Middle East. He was the only fellow Arab leader at the time to applaud the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's 1979 peace treaty with Israel.