Oman

John Albert, British of course, put the helicopter down lightly in the gravel clearing.

Out of the mud and stone huts, Bedouin men came running. They were draped with bandoliers and daggers. Their rifles were Belgian semi-automatics.

This was Jibjat, a primitive and remote "strategic hamlet" in a silent and obscure war against Communist penetration in the Middle East.

There is much handshaking and embracing at Jibjat, then the taking of tea on the hard dirt floor of a hut. Cigarettes are passed around. News is exchanged. After half an hour, the chopper is off to another hamlet on another mission to win "hearts and minds."

AMERICANS REMEMBER those phrases, hollow legacies from Vietnam. The British use them with wry smiles. But they are the labels for what is going on up here on the Jebel, the high mountain plateau that rises out of the Arabian sea on Oman's southern border.

Until a couple of years ago, a guerrilla war was being fought here. It began a long time ago as a rebellion against an old and autocratic sultan who sat in his walled city at Muscat, 800 miles away on the Persian Gulf.

Some of the rebel leaders had been indoctrinated and trained in China, others in the Soviet Union. They were supplied out of South Yemen on Oman's western border, a country where today a large Soviet military buildup is under way and where, by British and Omani estimates, some 3,000 Cubans and hundreds of East Germans are positioned. Their main interest now is in the war in the Horn of Africa between Somalia and Ethiopia. They are backing the Ethiopians.

But in the 1960s and for most this decade, Oman was the ripe target. The Jebeli tribesmen were willing foot soldiers. The whole ofsouthern Oman, known as the Dhojar, was shaky.

IRAN AND JORDAN sent troops and aircraft to prop up the government. Britain, which has had a protective presence here since the late 19th century, provided both army regulars and mercenaries to lead the Omani forces. And, with British assistance, a palace coup was arranged in 1970, supposedly under the direction of Tim Landon, a legendary local figure who is said to be living now as a millionaire in Muscat. The old ruler, Sultan Said Bin Taimur, was deposed and replaced by his young son, Qaboos, a graduate of British military academy at Sandhurst.

Qaboos inherited a country that had changed only minimally since the Middle Ages. His father, suspicious of Western influences, enforced a petty code of behavior that went beyond the stern strictures of the Koran. Such things as bicycles, sunglasses and music in any form were prohibited. The gates of Muscat were locked at sundown. No one was allowed out of his home after dark without a lantern of a kind approved by the sultan. His palaces were staffed with slaves. There were no hospitals in Oman and fewer that 10 miles of surfaced roads. Education was thought to be subversive. He personally selected the students for the three religious schools that were maintained. Omanis today refer to that period as the "darkness."

QABOOS SET OUT to modernize Oman with oil revenues that increased from about $100 million in 1970 to more than $1 billion today. He built roads, airports, hospitals and schools all over the country and opened up the educational system to girls. He also set out to win the war with the help of his international friends and with offers of cash and amnesty to the rebel tribes. By the end of 1975, most of the guerrillas had come over to the government side and Qaboos declared victory. Today, there is a guessing game as to the number of insurgents still active out of a population estimated at about 750,000.

A grave American gives no number. "But they are still out there," he says, "and they wish the government no good."

An Englishman laughingly refers to them as the Lavender Hill mob and puts the number at about 64."I wouldn't be surprised," he says, "if we had all their addresses."

His estimate coincides roughly with what the Omanis are saying. But they still feel uneasy, partly because of the situation in South Yemen, partly because the Muscat government has still had little impact on the lives of the tribes in the interior deserts and on the Jebel.

THAT IS WHY the government has begun what Jennie Robb, another British expatriate, calls "the mobile hearts and mind show" among the Jebeli tribesmen.

Six "strategic hamlets" or "civil aid centers" have been established thus far. Wells have been dug for the cattle and goats that give subsistence to the tribes. Little schools and mosques have been established in tents and concrete block structures. Teachers have been brought in from Egypt and Jordan to conduct elementary classes and political indoctrination sessions. There is a team of flying doctors based in the coastal port of Salalah that pays periodic visits to the hamlets. They are discovering, according to Dr. Hugh Morris, head of the service, an average life expectancy of 50 years and a whole range of serious public health problems including tuberculosis, trachoma, leprosy and a variety of infant diseases, some of them related to the Jebeli custom of sharing living conpounds and bathroom privileges with their cattle.

Against such obstacles, the "hearts and minds" battle is being waged in the Oman mountains.

"I think," says an American government employee, "that they'll be okay as long as the oil money comes in to keep these things going. After that, I don't know."