Oman's history, geographic location and national experience practically require the country to adopt a thoughtful and cosmopolitan foreign policy in order to survive and prosper. Joseph Kechichian has chosen to call the policy that the Sultanate has fortunately adopted "independent." Not a bad choice of words, because it prepares the reader for a narrative of policy development not typical of an Arab or Third World state. With a Sandhurst-educated ruler, memory of its own colonial possessions on the Asian subcontinent and in Africa, experience with two insurgencies, and as the subject of a ''decolonization" process, both prolonged and wise, Oman emerges as "different" to even the most casual observer. (Oman was never a British colony in any formal sense, but the various treaties and informal arrangements between the two countries created a relationship in which Britain was both protector and mentor. I am persuaded that in phasing out this relationship both Britain and Oman moved at a careful and measured pace to the benefit of both parties.) It is one of the strengths of Kechichian's book that it captures and details the many facets of Oman's intense individuality and relates them to foreign policy. The book also benefits from extensive research into existing source material and from access to Omani decision makers and, to a more limited extent, to Omani archives.
The book begins with a brief and useful discussion of the origins of Omani diplomacy from the earliest times through the successive imamates, the imperial period, decline and the establishment of the modern Omani state. Kechichian emphasizes Oman's isolation from the rest of the Arabian Peninsula throughout the earlier period and the development of the compensating outward-looking habits of a seafaring and colonial power. He also underlines the long-standing tension between the interior and Muscat that was to bear fruit in the Dhofar and imamate insurgencies of more recent times. Appropriate attention is devoted to Ibadhism in Oman, stressing its legacy of "intellectual society and cultural fitness." He might have noted also the inclination to simplicity, the egalitarianism and the lack of fanaticism, much evident in Omani society today.
Readers unfamiliar with Oman may, however, be left with the impression that the country is essentially an lbadhi state, and this is not the case. The Shihuh tribesmen of the Musandam Peninsula, two distinct Shia communities, the Baluchis and the Dhofaris are all non-Ibadhis and taken together represent a significant segment of Oman's population. Their successful integration into Omani society is, at the same time, another example of the country's cosmopolitanism and tolerance.
Part II of the book discusses Omani foreign policy by region: the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf Region; Oman and the West; Russia, Central Asia and the Caucasus; Oman and the Far East; Oman and South Asia; and Oman and Africa. The author's coverage of Oman's external relations is generally well-documented and informative. He is particularly good on relations with Iraq and Iran before, during and after the Gulf War (or, as he perhaps more accurately terms it, "the war for Kuwait") and shows the wisdom of Muscat's policy of seeking to minimize friction with both of the Gulfs major powers. There is little mention of Omani relations with the wider Arab world, however. This is particularly unfortunate in the case of Egypt and Jordan, given the importance of Egypt in the region's political life and the very close personal ties between Sultan Qaboos and Jordan's King Hussein.
Kechichian's segment on Omani-U.S. relations begins with a quote from J.E. Peterson regarding the recent past: '" ...U.S. objectives were formulated without taking into account the nature of Omani history, society and politics.'" When relevant material is made available from Department of State archives, it will be clear that this statement is not correct; on the contrary, every effort was made to conclude an access agreement with Oman that would be sensitive to its needs and vulnerabilities and more generally to manage the expanding relationship with care. In late 1983, when the initial phase of implementing the agreement was well underway, a senior British official confided in me his belief that most Omanis did not even know that the United States and Oman had a security relationship-certainly some indication that the relationship was proceeding discreetly.
Kechichian fails to capture an important element in Omani-United Kingdom relations: the role of the British "advisors" who remained in Oman after the country was exempted from the 1968 British decision to withdraw East of Suez. Indeed the word "advisors'' is not really accurate in describing them. It does not convey the dedication and loyalty to the sultan and Oman which these men possessed and demonstrated. Perhaps the Arabic murafiq, with its overtones of friendliness, companionship and closeness best describes their role. One of them, Timothy Landon (actually a Canadian), was a classmate of Qaboos at Sandhurst and later, as his equerry, became one of the closest and most influential of these murafiqeen. Mention is made of the appointment in 1981 of General Sir Timothy Creasey, former commander of British Land Forces, as CDS or Chief of the Defense Staff of the Omani Armed Forces. But Air Vice Marshal Eric Bennett and Major General Johnny Watts had long served as commanders of the Sultanate's air and ground forces respectively and as such had a tremendous influence on national-security policy.
One senses that Kechichian may have been reluctant to play up the role of the Creaseys, Bennetts, Watts, Landons (and Anthony Ashworth, long-time adviser to the Ministry of Information) for fear that the sultan and his government would come off as somehow less independent and to an extent British puppets. In reality these "British Omanis" merely confirmed what were already nascent Omani political instincts and provided a technical expertise when little was available from among Omanis. No discussion of Oman's internal and external relations will be complete until the full contribution of the British murafiqeen has been recorded and evaluated.
The sections on Omani relations with Pakistan and Africa are particularly well done, underlining Oman's experience as a colonizing power in Gwadar (a small enclave on Pakistan's Makran coast) and in Zanzibar and the country's enduring ties with both Pakistan and East Africa.
Kechichian offers a particularly cogent section on Omani-Russian relations, which he aptly describes as going from "the nonexistent to the businesslike." He also helps us see Oman's extensive business relations with Japan as not only commercially motivated, but part of a more general policy of spreading contacts with the major world powers.
Toward the end of the book, in a section titled "Domestic Poise," Kechichian discusses the relationship between tranquility and foreign policy, noting, "...the country's relative internal political stability has enabled the administration to work on sound foreign policy goals." He is probably correct about Oman rejecting "packaged" systems for political development. At the same time, Western academic and diplomatic observers have often encountered trouble when discussing democratization and political liberalization in Third World societies. This has been especially true with commentaries on the Arabian Peninsula, where on the one hand terms like "absolute ruler" have been used without necessary qualification and, on the other, the tradition of the paramount sheikh achieving tribal consensus has been elevated to a level just short of parliamentary democracy. The reality is of course much more complex. Nowhere is this more true than in Oman, and Kechichian adequately conveys the sultan's determination to proceed slowly and at a pace appropriate to Oman.
But the author fails to note that the country does have some genuinely democratic traditions such as the office of arif, the elected arbiter of water allocation for the village falaj or irrigation canal system. Also Oman is divided into wilayats or districts presided over by a wali. At present the wali is appointed by the Ministry of Interior, but his office complex typically houses a variety of social and development agencies which he coordinates. Anyone who has toured the interior of Oman and met with the walis and their staffs can testify that they are unusually competent and dedicated public servants and, perhaps most important of all, are in close and sensitive touch with the local populace. One hopes that gifted observers like Kechichian will note and thereby possibly encourage the use of indigenous institutions like the arif and wali systems as important building blocks in democratic liberalization efforts and as necessary underpinnings of more ambitious Western-based parliamentary experiments.
The book also features a lengthy appendix with statistical charts, together with the texts of key statements and international agreements. These aids are judiciously chosen and genuinely helpful in fleshing out the text.
A fuller and more complete study of Omani foreign relations will have to wait for the release of more documentary material from Muscat, Washington and London. In the meantime, those interested in Oman and the region will be grateful for Kechichian' s thorough and informative study.