"I remember the sultan's first glorious national day," said a German who lived here on the southeastern corner of the Arabian Peninsula more than a decade ago.

The Omani soldiers played triumphant airs on their bagpipes, he recalled, their kilts and khakis sharp-creased beneath the leopard skins thrown over their shoulders.

It was 1974. Sultan Qaboos bin Said had overthrown his father in 1970 with British backing. He was on his way to crushing a guerrilla rebellion in the southern half of his country with British officers and British Special Air Service units.

For 40 years Qaboos' father had kept Oman in isolation and a curious sort of militant backwardness in which, among other things, secondary education and eyeglasses, electricity and umbrellas were neglected or banned.

Of the major powers only Britain kept, or was allowed to keep, a substantial presence.

In 1974 the country, its oil revenues burgeoning, could start suddenly to take off -- and it did so in impeccably British style.

But now, 11 years later, as Qaboos prepares for a spectacular birthday celebration next week marking 15 years in power, times and the nature of British influence are changing.

Once the harbingers of the future, Britons are now viewed increasingly as anachronisms. Young Omanis, the first generation to receive widespread educational benefits, are itching to fill the jobs long held by expatriates, or "expats" as the elite foreign work force is known. British businessmen are being warned by their embassy that "they don't get contracts here as of right" anymore.

Qaboos, sensitive from the start about charges in the Arab world that he was a British puppet, has worked resolutely to make his voice a distinctive -- and highly independent -- Arab voice.

Last week, as host to the Gulf Cooperation Council meeting of Arab leaders on the Persian Gulf, he reaffirmed this position. Yet no one expects the process of "Omanization" to be rapid, and the British will not be leaving soon.

"At the senior levels of the Omani government there is an appreciation of the role the British have played," one non-British diplomat said. "They continue to rely on them. They're just too thin on Omani talent not to."

Among other influential posts, British officers still wield power in the intelligence and immigration services. "It's the British officers who decide for us in the security field," said one Omani critical of the situation.

In numbers, all other expatriate presences pale beside Britain's.

According to their embassies, there are only 140 Japanese here, even though they buy 60 percent of Oman's oil; there are 350 French, even though they have a major petroleum exploration operation; and there are about 1,200 Americans -- whose government has invested more than $300 million to improve Oman's airstrips and build storage facilities for U.S. access.

But there are more than 11,000 Britons.

British officers still command the Navy and Air Force and hold senior staff positions in the Army.

One Englishman here, asked if his country had an access agreement similar to the one signed with Washington in 1980 to let U.S. planes land in Oman when necessary, smiled at the naivete of the question.

"At the moment," he said, "the sort of person who's going to make a decision about whether a Royal Air Force aircraft can come in is a Brit anyway."

But now a certain breed of Briton that used to be pervasive is seen only rarely in such watering holes as the Nell Gwynne Pub at the Al Falaj Hotel.

Walter Helfer, a German who ran Omani television for two years after it started up in 1974, remembers the walrus-mustached former functionaries from British colonies long since granted independence.

"These guys were in their mid-forties, with no chance to go back to England and make a new life there," Helfer recalled. "You found people who defended, silently, the empire. They were like a secret society. They were something straight from Kipling or Somerset Maugham."

"But the British influence, to be fair," he said, "was not detrimental to this country. They really drilled the Omani Army. Secondly, they waged the war in Dhofar [the rebellious southern province], and they defended the office of the sultan."

According to several histories, it was because former sultan Said bin Taimur refused to develop his country -- and alienated much of its population -- that the British decided to acquiesce, at least, in his overthrow.

His only son, Qaboos, had been trained at the British military academy at Sandhurst.

For the right men at the right time, there was much to be gained by helping bring this oil-rich country into modern life.

A contemporary of the sultan's at Sandhurst -- Timothy Landon -- became one of his earliest and closest advisers. Landon eventually was made a brigadier in the new sultan's Army and, one knowledgeable Briton here said, is now "an extremely rich man."

But such opportunities are now a thing of the past for foreigners, and the British have told some of their competitors, according to one diplomat, that "we are trying to maintain what we have achieved here."

The most obvious competition for influence is from Americans.

But in a region where some countries undergo prolonged political ordeals to buy U.S. arms, Oman appears content to rely on less complicated purchases from Britain.

According to diplomat, the only major weapons system supplied by Washington has been AIM9 sidewinder air-to-air missiles. Contracts for tanks, jets and other high-priced weaponry have gone almost exclusively to Britain.