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WorldNetDaily.com January 14, 2002

Oman open to closer U.S. military ties

The government of Oman is cutting its defense budget and shifting more funds into social services as part of an effort to quell domestic opposition to its cooperation with the United States. Reducing the threat of unrest will clear the way for greater military ties with Washington, which may be considering further options in the region for conducting its campaign against terrorism.

Oman, a key U.S. ally in the Middle East, is adjusting its budget to reflect its assistance to Washington's war on terror. But the oil-rich sultanate actually is reducing defense funding and shifting the savings into social welfare programs, Middle East Newsline reported.

Unlike many other governments in the region, Oman's regime has faced relatively little domestic opposition to its relationship with the United States. This is largely due to strong oil revenues and an extremely tolerant local strain of Islam. Even so, it appears the Omani leadership is investing in preventative measures to keep a lid on unrest, knowing that Washington will guarantee its external security.

By addressing domestic security before it becomes an issue, Oman hopes to avoid the problems faced by neighboring Saudi Arabia, where extremist Muslims actively oppose the basing of U.S. military forces there. A pacified population will allow the Omani government to deepen its involvement with the U.S. military, which likely is re-examining its options in the anti-terror campaign.

Roughly the same size as Kansas, Oman depends on oil and gas revenues to support the government and its 2.6 million citizens. The ruling regime is very close to the United States and the United Kingdom. Washington has maintained a presence there for at least two decades, and British support was critical when Sultan Qaboos bin Said seized power from his father in 1970.

Since that time, Oman has served as a logistics and intelligence center for U.S. operations in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea. The country hosted a massive joint exercise with the British armed forces in September that was planned before the attacks that month. The exercise included 22,000 British troops, several warships and an aircraft carrier.

The U.S. military currently uses at least three air bases in Oman as part of operations in Afghanistan, according to GlobalSecurity.org. The Navy runs P-3 Orion aircraft patrols out of the Masirah air base, where at least one squadron of AC-130 gunships is based as well. Oman also hosts several Air Force pre-positioning sites, with enough equipment and fuel to maintain three air bases and 26,000 support personnel.

Its tight relationship with the American and British governments gives Oman protection in the case of a foreign attack. The regime doubtless then feels comfortable presenting a 2002 defense budget that is about 6 percent lower than the previous year and which shifts $100 million into social welfare programs. The money would be allocated to employment programs, including one to hire 1,000 Omani nationals to help run the energy sector.

Doling out jobs is a time-honored way for an endangered regime to buy political loyalty. But the Omani government still appears to face very little domestic opposition. Its oil revenues continue to flow, the local strain of Islam is much more tolerant than elsewhere in the region and the government security services are very efficient.

Shiites make up a disaffected and economically underprivileged minority but have made no known attempts at organizing. A Muslim Brotherhood movement was broken up in 1995, and the government allowed about 1,000 students to march peacefully against Israel this fall. But these episodes appear to be the exception, not the rule.

Instead, the job programs seem to be insurance to guarantee that dissent remains a distant threat.

If Oman can guarantee a stable population, it may position itself as an alternative to U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia. Rising unemployment is fueling extremist-Muslim opposition to the Saudi government, which put severe limitations on the U.S. air operations in Afghanistan, as well as Operation Southern Watch in Iraq, due to fears of anti-U.S. unrest.

But the Omani government, while cautious, has allowed AC-130 sorties on a regular basis. And more social programs might guarantee the stability necessary for a larger U.S. commitment. Washington would still keep a military presence in Saudi Arabia to defend that country against Iraq. But offensive air operations for the region could be based out of Oman, which is actually closer to hot spots like Afghanistan and Yemen.

Further down the road, Oman could become the primary base for U.S naval vessels as well. The U.S. 5th Fleet - tasked with protecting the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz - is based in Bahrain. But the proliferation of land-based anti-ship missiles and small attack craft is making the Gulf an increasingly dangerous place to base large ships. Putting the fleet at a location right outside the Gulf, like the Omani port of Muscat, would allow the Navy to control access to the area with less danger to its ships.

The Omani government has several reasons to allow more bases. Not only would the regime cement its relationship with its sponsors in Washington and London, it could pick up a financial windfall as well. A large U.S. air base or port would pour billions of dollars a year into the country and diversify an economy based almost entirely on oil revenues.

2002 WorldNetDaily.com