Viewing cable 05MUSCAT547

05MUSCAT5472005-04-04 08:08:00 2011-08-30 01:44:00 CONFIDENTIAL Embassy Muscat
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 04 MUSCAT 000547 
E.O. 12958: DECL: 04/04/2015 
Classified By: Ambassador Richard L. Baltimore III. 
Reason: 1.4 (b, d). 
¶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. 
¶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 
¶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. 
¶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. 
¶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. 
¶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... 
¶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. 
¶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. 
¶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. 
¶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. 
¶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 
eroded quickly. 
¶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 
¶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. 
¶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. 
¶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. 
¶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. 
¶17. (U) USCENTCOM cleared this cable.