With the Gulf region, and much of the greater Middle East, entangled in civil strife and sectarian divisions, Oman looks increasingly like an anomaly. Dominated by formidable mountains and huge tracts of uninhabited gravelly desert, the country has a population of four million people dispersed across a territory the size of Italy. It is sandwiched between Saudi Arabia and the hinterlands of Yemen, in which al-Qaeda has much influence. And its government is one of the most absolutist in the world. Yet Sultan Qaboos seems to enjoy more legitimacy than most of his Arabian peers, even among Omanis who are deeply critical of the government.