During my second trip to Oman in February 1986, I visited the officer’s club at one of the Sultan of Oman’s Army bases near the capital, Muscat. The invitation had been extended by an officer who had sat next to me on the Gulf Air flight into Muscat from London.
There were about a dozen officers in the club the night I visited it. All of them (including the one who had invited me) were British, not Omani. They told me that there were British officers at all levels of the Sultan’s armed forces. Indeed, during the 1970s, almost the entire officer corps was British. Even now, there were a large number of British officers, especially in the Navy and Air Force. Some were seconded from the British armed forces to Oman; others worked for the Sultan’s forces on contract after having retired from the British military. H.M. the Sultan, they informed me, paid much higher salaries than H.M. the Queen.
The club was one of the few places outside the major hotels where alcohol was available. Most of us were drinking good British lager. The officers were regaling me with tales about their experiences. Some of them had been in the region for two decades and had participated either in the successful British counter-insurgency operation in southern Oman (Dhofar) or even the unsuccessful one before that in what became Marxist South Yemen. Those involved in the latter were still bitter toward the Labour government of the mid-1960s for having withdrawn British forces from Aden and basically abandoning the country to the Marxists.
After a couple of hours and several beers, I asked the bartender to direct me to the men’s room. He started to point the way to me when one of the officers said, “Let’s take him to the throne room!”
The entire group came with me. Someone opened the door to a small room that had been added onto the building. The most prominent features of the room were a toilet and a sink. They looked like they were made of solid gold, though they were probably only finished with gold leaf. All the room’s other fixtures were gold also.
“Last year was the fifteenth anniversary of the accession of H.M. Sultan Qabus,” explained one of the officers. “For the occasion, His Majesty made ceremonial visits all around the country, including to this base. The Palace insisted that this room be added in case His Majesty felt the necessity of relieving himself.”
“Did a bathroom like this have to be built every place he visited?” I asked.
“I suppose so,” said another officer. “You wouldn’t want the royal rump to be seated on ordinary porcelain, after all.”
“But this room probably cost ten or twenty thousand dollars,” I estimated. “How many places did he visit altogether last year?”
“Dozens I suppose,” someone replied. “Maybe a hundred visits altogether. The newspapers were full of stories about them.”
“That means one to two million dollars were spent so that the Sultan could go to the bathroom,” I calculated. “That’s not exactly cost effective.”
“In this case, it wasn’t cost effective in the least. For as I recall, His Majesty didn’t require the use of these facilities at all when he came here.”
“Still, it wasn’t a dead loss,” said the officer who had invited me to the club. “After all, we use these facilities practically every night. And although they’re a bit more elegant than we might require, it’s still possible that they’ll be used for their intended purpose. His Majesty might just pay us another visit on his twentieth anniversary.”
“Unless he wants a platinum loo then,” said someone.
Everyone laughed. The officers then went back to the bar, allowing me to go about my business in majestic solitude.