C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 04 MUSCAT 000547
USCENTCOM FOR POLAD, CCJ2 AND CCJ5-E
STATE FOR NEA, PM, NEA/ARPI, NEA/RA, INR (MNIEHAUS), INR/B
STATE PASS TO USTR FOR C.NOVELLI, J.BUNTIN
SECDEF FOR OSD
E.O. 12958: DECL: 04/04/2015
TAGS: PREL PTER PINS PINR PGOV KDEM ETRD MARR XF IR IZ MU
SUBJECT: GEN ABIZAID'S 3/29 MEETING WITH SULTAN QABOOS
Classified By: Ambassador Richard L. Baltimore III.
Reason: 1.4 (b, d).
Â¶1. (C) In a March 29 visit by USCENTCOM CDR Gen Abizaid,
Sultan Qaboos credited Saudi Arabia for tactical successes
against terrorism but worried whether the Al Saud yet have a
longer term strategy. He sees Iraq still at a crossroads,
expressing concern over the country's territorial integrity,
its weak sense of national identity, and the troubling
symbolism of the Saddam-era flag. He is impatient for an
Iraqi government to form and for the adoption of a
constitution that will give lasting assurance to minorities
and secularists. Noting that Iranian policies will be hard
to divine prior to the outcome of this year's presidential
election, the Sultan is gravely concerned that Tehran not "do
anything stupid" with respect to its nuclear programs. He
sees no recourse but for the USG to engage in direct dialogue
with Iran, and cautioned Washington to keep in mind that the
Islamic Republic is merely a thin disguise for what remains
imperial-minded Persia. He shared his conversations with a
"deeply disappointed" President Khatami. Sultan Qaboos
expressed optimism that the appeal for extremist ideologies
appears to be somewhat on the decline in the region, which is
contributing to a marked increase in tourism and direct
foreign investment. He is buoyant on the near-term prospects
for a U.S.-Oman Free Trade Agreement. The Sultan listed
freedom of expression and sharing power with the public as
vital antidotes to extremism. End summary.
Â¶2. (SBU) On March 29, USCENTCOM CDR General Abizaid paid a
call on Sultan Qaboos at the royal camp in Manah. The Sultan
was joined in the 90-minute meeting by Chief of Staff of the
Sultan's Armed Forces, LTG Ahmed al-Nabhani. General Abizaid
was accompanied by the Ambassador and senior CENTCOM and
Embassy staff members. The party was flown to the royal camp
at Saih al-Barakat, about 40 minutes' flight-time from
Muscat, aboard two of the Sultan's helicopters.
Iraq at a Crossroads
Â¶3. (C) The Sultan entered the meeting, he noted, having just
watched the news and seeing that the Iraqi parliament had yet
to agree on a new government. He praised the Iraqi people
for showing great courage by coming out to vote, but observed
that now was the time for the politicians to deliver on
promises and put past differences behind them. Should the
political divisions persist, he circumspectly predicted that
Iraq "will not be a happy place." Noting the need to draft
and approve a constitution and hold new elections by the end
of the year, he lamented the lack of cohesion among Iraqi
political forces. Getting things right now, he pointed out,
could bring enduring peace and stability to that country.
Â¶4. (C) The Sultan was keen to discuss Iraq's flag, soliciting
GEN Abizaid's views on the matter. GEN Abizaid noted the
controversy sparked by an earlier effort to change the Iraqi
flag, and therefore predicted it was likely to endure in its
existing state. Sultan Qaboos argued strongly against the
current Iraqi flag. He believes the colors represent
bankrupt Baathist ideology, while "Allah Akbar" was a crass,
cynical add-on by a deposed dictator (Saddam Hussein).
Symbolism, the Sultan argued, matters, which is why he
completely scrapped Oman's 1970's-era flag. But he
acknowledged that the matter, ultimately, is for the Iraqi
people to decide.
Â¶5. (C) Asked for his general assessment, the Omani monarch
said most people remain conflicted as to the degree of
progress being made in Iraq. He identified Iraq's long-term
territorial integrity as remaining a top concern for the
region, even if fears of disintegration have reduced of late.
While Kurds, Shia and Arab Sunnis should all see themselves
as Iraqis first and foremost, many still do not. He also
noted concerns that Shia parties may be espousing a moderate
line now on the role of religion in the Iraqi state, but that
some fear they could take a more radical approach once firmly
in power. "One can't dismiss the possibility," he worried.
Â¶6. (C) The new Iraqi constitution, he argued, should be firm
and rigid to preclude future manipulation and to give Iraq's
minority groups reassurance about their status. Ordinary
people, he noted, do not want religious or ethnic strife, but
rather jobs and personal security. If the new constitution
is too open to interpretation, he warned that the U.S. may
find after its forces have left that elements will "play"
with the situation and bring to power a dictatorship similar
to the one the U.S. fought so hard to remove. Even a "middle
ground" approach, he said, could conceal time bombs.
Likewise, while it is meritorious of the USG to consult with
Iraq's neighbors, the Sultan warned that many of those states
have ulterior motives and selfish interests in mind. While
Oman, given its distance, is "neutral," the Sultan opined
that the same is not true of many other states. Similarly,
the Sultan perceives a moderating approach by the regional
media, but says they remain selective in what they report and
can resume "spinning" stories in the future.
Saudi Arabia: Abdullah Trying, But...
Â¶7. (C) Viewing Saudi Arabia, the Sultan appraised the recent
period of relative calm there as evidence that the security
situation appears to be stabilizing. He repeatedly gave
credit to Crown Prince Abdullah for trying his best and being
a strong leader. He remains concerned, however, that the
Saudi royal family is focusing too much on today's problems
and not enough on the next generation. Noting the frank
conversations he used to enjoy with King Fahd, the Sultan
questioned whether Abdullah enjoyed full backing and
solidarity. Concentrating too much on security, Abdullah
seems to wax and wane between inviting public dialogue and
turning against it. The Kingdom likewise seems to get
wrapped up on trivial matters such as whether women should
have the right to drive because such issues become
existential to the religious hard-liners. The Saudi royal
family, the Sultan feels, needs to deal with the fanatics in
a comprehensive, decisive way.
Â¶8. (C) Revealing much about his own views on religion, the
Sultan observed that religion combines many features:
fundamental pillars of belief, rules of interpersonal
behavior, and a kind of social contract, among others.
Islam, he said, strictly proscribes only a very narrow band
of activities, such as drinking blood and eating pork;
everything else is simply cultural interpretation. He finds
it ridiculous that some people claim women must wear a hijab
as an article of faith, whereas the Quran makes no such
requirement. Murdering people in the name of the faith is
likewise an abomination. Noting how effective Christian
missionaries were in presenting a positive image of their
religion by coming to places like Oman as doctors and
teachers, he questioned what image of Islam is presented by
suicide bombers. Illustrating the impossibility of imposing
faith, the Sultan recounted how his parents would force him
to pray at the appointed morning and evening prayer times.
Having every intention to pray at the time of his choosing,
Qaboos resented being told exactly when to do so. So he
would go through the motions when forced, but did not
actually pray. It is human nature, he noted, to rebel
against tight authority.
Â¶9. (C) The Sultan also worried that the new Saudi generation
is more conservative than the elder set. The young, he
surmised, wish to control their futures with an iron grip,
which is doomed to fail. Qaboos' own formula for successful
rule is to share as much power with the public as possible.
Rather than weakening the ruler's hand, doing this, he said,
actually increases the head of state's power by harnessing
strong popular support.
Â¶10. (C) Sultan Qaboos expressed his strong personal hope that
the USG and Iran would some day sit down together and truly
talk. Speaking bluntly, he sees that as the only way
forward, though admitted that he was not certain how Iran
would react to an invitation to dialogue. The Sultan was
reserving judgment on that question pending the outcome of
the Iranian elections, at which point the picture should
become more clear. Naming Rafsanjani, Velayati, and others
as possible successors to President Khatami, Qaboos said the
only thing certain was that Ayatollah Khamenei will have an
important influence. The Sultan revealed that Khatami
confided to him during his October 2004 state visit that he
was seriously considering moving to an Arab Gulf state upon
leaving office to write his memoires, improve his Arabic, and
lead a more settled life. Qaboos observed that "some say"
Khamenei has been particularly harsh in his treatment of
Khatemi out of pique that the international community pays
the Ayatollah so little heed.
Â¶11. (C) Khatemi had told the Sultan that he was a "very
disappointed man." The Iranian president said he had tried
his best to bring about reform while in office, particularly
after his landslide electoral victory. But at a critical
juncture in his term (NFI), he did not get the support he
needed from the U.S. and West. The conservatives detected
that, and from that point on Khatemi's political position
Â¶12. (C) While there are "some good people" among Iran's
politicians, the Sultan said there were also many
conservatives. He repeatedly expressed his hope that those
conservatives would "not be stupid," that they will
understand the international community's red lines, and that,
at a minimum, they will realize that "now is not the time" to
satisfy their nuclear ambitions. Offering the unique
perspective of an ancient state that has always bordered
Iran, the Sultan cautioned the U.S. not to be fooled by the
superficial patina of the "Islamic Republic of Iran." "You
are dealing with Persia, not the 'Islamic Republic.'"
Extremism Down, Economy Up
Â¶13. (SBU) The Sultan was buoyed by recent much-needed rains
in the Sultanate, and by considerable activity in developing
Oman's tourism and industrial infrastructure. Egyptian and
Emirati investors, including Dubai Crown Prince Mohammed bin
Rashid al-Maktoum (whom the Sultan termed a "fearless"
investor), were set to launch several new resort complexes
along Oman's undeveloped coastline, and the long-awaited
Salalah Free Zone project was formally launched that very
morning in Southern Oman. The Sultan specifically voiced his
expectation that the Free Trade Agreement currently being
negotiated with the USG will be signed soon, and anticipated
the economic doors of opportunity that it will open for Oman.
Â¶14. (SBU) The Sultan attributed the up-tick in tourism and
investment throughout the region to the Middle East being "at
peace with itself" more than in recent years. Higher oil
prices help, he quipped, but argued that the price per barrel
is illusive when not placed in context. He noted that Oman
reaps only a fraction of the USD 44 per barrel for oil given
the high production costs and the significantly reduced
purchasing power of the dollar. The key to money is not how
much you have, he advised, but rather how well you manage it.
He rejects those who always look to the past as some golden
era, and likewise cautioned against believing the economists
"who are always trying to convince you that things are worse
off than they are." Every opportunity comes with its own set
of challenges, so having a positive outlook is key to
weathering the vicissitudes of history.
Â¶15. (C) Asked to gauge the strength of terror groups today,
the Sultan agreed with GEN Abizaid that they appear to be
weaker, but that it is difficult to know what they may be
organizing themselves for in the future. He felt extremist
ideology has been discredited by its senseless violence. The
Sultan argued that freedom of conscience and speech were the
best antidote to extremist ideology, and was encouraged that
Arabs appear to be getting over their fear of speaking out
and expressing their views. It is time, he said, to let the
silent majority speak and exile extremists to the margins of
society where they belong. He also thought that couching
harsh ideologies in religious cloaks was likewise losing its
appeal, in part given the human nature of fearing eternal
damnation for violating true religious tenets.
Â¶16. (C) That said, the Sultan cautioned against complacency
and in favor of sustaining the momentum "in the campaign."
"The enemy can sense we are at a crossroads," he noted, and
while he is confident that good will prevail over evil, that
goal must be fought for, like all worthwhile things. He
likened the situation to crawling out of a comfortable, warm
bed on a chilly morning: unpleasant, but it must be done.
But as long as a nation remains happy, it will prove
resistant to extremist influences.
Â¶17. (U) USCENTCOM cleared this cable.