The United States Navy has long used Oman's Masirah Island air base as a staging point for shuttling supplies to ships near the entrance to the Persian Gulf. But as recently as five years ago Navy fliers had to be careful to finish operations at Masirah by sundown: Oman was so worried about the appearance of Western influence that US personnel were not allowed to stay overnight on base grounds - for any reason.
Today Oman is slightly more relaxed with the US presence. Navy P-3 antisubmarine planes have reportedly flown from Omani airstrips. But the country's skittishness about Western uniforms on its soil points up a major obstacle to the US presence in the Persian Gulf: The Pentagon has no base of its own in the region.
``These countries are very sensitive to our talking about what we can do there,'' says an officer of the US Central Command, the Florida-based command whose area of responsibility includes the Gulf.
Nations near the Gulf with ties to the West often want to cooperate with US forces. But because of their domestic politics they hesitate to make the visible long-term commitment that a permanent US presence would represent.
Take Kuwait. The Reagan administration has said it will agree to a Kuwaiti request to register 11 of its oil tankers under the American flag. US warships will be assigned to escort these reflagged ships, increasing the Navy's presence in Gulf waters. Kuwait, however, is not on the short list of Middle East nations that are counted as providing significant host services by Central Command, which controls all US sea, air, and land power in the crescent stretching from Sudan to Pakistan.
Of Gulf nations, Oman, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates give significant support to US forces, according to Central Command officers. Of other Middle East countries, Jordan, Egypt, and close US ally Israel provide similar help. American warships sailing near the Arabian Peninsula also often divert to East Africa, particularly Kenya, for port calls.
Central Command's main mission is to guard against Soviet incursion into the Persian Gulf and surrounding areas. Currently command officers are forced to do this job from a headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base near Tampa, Fla. Ideally they would like to deploy to a Middle East base at least a portion of the six divisions and 600 aircraft committed to them on paper.
Ras Banas, an Egyptian air base on the Red Sea, which US money helped renovate, was thought a likely home by Central Command officials earlier in the decade. Egypt-US talks on a base pact broke off in 1983, however.
In the Middle East generally, the United States is seen as Israel's protector and thus is considered suspect by Israel's adversaries. The often conservative Gulf states are also wary of any ties to the West, which could offend people within their countries who feel Western ways have no place in Islamic societies. Leaders of Saudi Arabia and other area nations remember Anwar Sadat, the late Egyptian President, and the Shah of Iran, both of whom fell partly because they were too pro-Western.
This does not mean American forces have extreme difficulty operating in the region. They have limited access to some Gulf nations.
Oman is perhaps the country whose support means most to the US Navy, for instance. Besides quiet resupply help, Navy air wings have been allowed to use Omani desert as a bombing practice range. Oman's reclusive leader, Sultan Qabus bin Said, is widely thought to have close advisers who have ties to US and British intelligence agencies.
The small ships of the US Middle East Task Force are allowed to put in at Bahrain, where some of their land-based administrators are. The US Navy has a formal access pact with Djibouti, a former French colony that is still a host to thousands of French military personnel. Egypt and Saudi Arabia cooperate with the US in military exercises, though the Pentagon would like closer military ties with both.