Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who modernised Oman, dies at 79
Oman's Sultan Qaboos bin Said, the Middle East's longest-ruling monarch who seized power in a 1970 palace coup and pulled his Arabian sultanate into modernity while carefully balancing diplomatic ties between adversaries Iran and the U.S., has died. He was 79.
The British-educated, reclusive sultan reformed a nation that was home to only three schools and harsh laws banning electricity, radios, eyeglasses and even umbrellas when he took the throne.
Under his reign, Oman became known as a welcoming tourist destination and a key Middle East interlocutor, helping the U.S. free captives in Iran and Yemen and even hosting visits by Israeli officials while pushing back on their occupation of land Palestinians want for a future state.
The Sultan of Oman: neither heir, nor spare
Many long-established Arab rulers were toppled during the Arab Spring in 2011. But not all of them: the Sultan of Oman has been head of the Gulf state for forty years – and is as popular as ever. By Anne Allmeling
Unmarried and childless: Qaboos bin Said al-Said is an exception among the Arab heads of state. His reign as Sultan of Oman stretches back over more than forty years – longer than any of his neighbours in the Middle East. He celebrated both his 75th birthday and the 45th anniversary of his reign on 18 November
Rapid development: Sultan Qaboos has more or less managed to modernise Oman overnight. Forty five years ago, the sultanate was one of the most backward countries in the Gulf. Since then, according to a development report issued by the United Nations, Oman has made the most progress of any country in the world. Oil revenues have played a major role in the process. Oman began producing oil in the 1960s
A nation of seafarers: famed for its frankincense in the Ancient World, Oman subsequently played a major role in the copper trade. The sultanate experienced a golden age during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: it controlled huge swathes of the East African coast. The sultans even maintained a palace complex on Zanzibar. But this era came to an end with the birth of Western imperialism. The country lost its political and economic significance
The race to modernise: forty five years ago, the only sealed roads were to be found in the capital Maskat. Electricity and running water was rare. These days, Oman has a road network that covers the entire country. Even in the most remote regions, people have access to schools and hospitals – Oman also boasts more than 20 colleges and universities
Promoting the role of women: the Oman regime makes a point of promoting women. They are allowed to move freely within Oman and may work in positions that reflect their qualifications. There is even a ″male quota″ at the state-owned Sultan Qaboos University, because young Omani women generally leave school with better grades than their male counterparts
Sand without end: with a population of just four million and covering an area equivalent to that of western Germany, Oman is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world. Great expanses of the sultanate are given over to desert. Since its oil reserves are limited, the government is currently investigating alternative sources of income – such as tourism
Lap of luxury: in recent years Oman has become a popular holiday destination. Cruise ships now regularly drop anchor in the port at Maskat. Tourists numbers are rising steadily thanks to a combination of traditional culture and exclusive luxury hotels. Maskat airport is currently being extended, more hotels are scheduled to follow
Economic difficulties: tourism alone, however, cannot make up for the shortfall from sinking oil revenues. To date, it makes up less than six percent of Oman′s gross domestic product. Oman faces a huge economic challenge: the population is growing, as are their expectations
Youthful demographic: every year tens of thousands of young Omanis flood the market looking for work, many of them with university degrees. But not every graduate finds a job. Unemployment is high – particularly among the young. Most want to work for the state, because the conditions are better than those in commercial enterprises
Unrest in the sultanate: Oman also experienced unrest during the Arab Spring. Thousands of people demonstrated against corruption and in favour of better living standards. Following a considerable number of compromises by the regime, the wave of protests died down. At least one person died during the demonstrations – a shock for the entire population, famed for being peace-loving
Ibadism: the majority of Muslims in Oman are Ibadites, belonging neither to the Sunni nor the Shia school of Islam – one reason the Sultan has been able to keep his country out of the confessionalist conflicts that plague the Middle East. He prefers to adopt the role of mediator – for instance during the nuclear agreement between USA and Iran and during hostage crises in the region
Heirless: to celebrate the 45th anniversary of his accession, the face of Sultan Qaboos adorns t-shirts, flags and badges. The absolute monarch is still popular, even after decades of being in power. In the meantime, however, many Omanis are asking who′s going to call the shots in future. It is still unclear who will succeed the childless Sultan – and address the challenges that are looming on the horizon
"We do not have any conflicts and we do not put fuel on the fire when our opinion does not agree with someone,'' Sultan Qaboos told a Kuwaiti newspaper in a rare interview in 2008.
Oman's state-run news agency announced his death early Saturday, but offered no cause. The royal court declared three days of mourning. Following Islamic tradition, the sultan was buried before nightfall.
The sultan's death had raised the risk of unrest in this country on the eastern edge of the Arabian Peninsula. The unmarried Sultan Qaboos had no children and did not publicly name an heir, a tradition among the ruling Al Said dynasty whose history is replete with bloody takeovers. But within hours, Oman state television announced Haitham bin Tariq Al Said, who had served as the sultanate's culture minister, as the new sultan.
Oman's long-time willingness to strike its own path frustrated Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, long-time foes of Iran who now dominate the politics of regional Gulf Arab nations. How Oman will respond to pressures both external and internal in a nation Sultan Qaboos absolutely ruled for decades remains in question.
"Maintaining this sort of equidistant type of relationship ... is going to be put to the test," said Gary A. Grappo, a former U.S. ambassador to Oman. "Whoever that person is is going to have an immensely, immensely difficult job. And overhanging all of that will be the sense that he's not Qaboos because those are impossible shoes to fill.''
The sultan had been believed to be ill for some time, though authorities never disclosed what malady he faced. A December 2019 report by the Washington Institute for Near-East Policy described the sultan as suffering from "diabetes and a history of colon cancer.''
Sultan Qaboos spent eight months in a hospital in Germany, returning to Oman in 2015, with the royal court only saying that the treatment he received was successful. In December 2019, he travelled to Belgium for a week for what the court described as "medical checks". Days of worry about his condition ended on 31 December 2019, with the royal court describing him to be in stable condition.
Sultan Qaboos cut a fashionable figure in a region whose leaders are known for a more austere attire. His colourful turbans stood out, as did his form-fitting robes with a traditional curved khanjar knife stuck inside, the symbol of Oman. He occasionally wore a white turban out of his belief that he spiritually led Oman's Ibadi Muslims, a more liberal offshoot of Islam predating the Sunni-Shia split.
The sultan's willingness to stand apart was key to Oman's influence in the region. While home only to some 4.6 million people and smaller oil reserves than its neighbours, Oman under Sultan Qaboos routinely influenced the region in ways others couldn't.
Oman's oil minister routinely criticizes the policies of the Saudi-led OPEC oil cartel with a smile. Muscat hosts meetings of Yemen's Houthi rebels, locked in a years-long bloody war with Saudi Arabia. When Americans or dual nationals with Western ties are detained in Iran or areas under Tehran's influence, communiques that later announce their freedom routinely credit the help of Oman.
The sultan's greatest diplomatic achievement came as Oman hosted secret talks between Iranian and U.S. diplomats that led to the 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers. The agreement, which limited Iran's atomic program in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions, has come unravelled since President Donald Trump withdrew from it in May 2018.
Even while mediating negotiations with Tehran, the sultan maintained ties to those in the Pahlavi dynasty that Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution overthrew.
U.S. President Donald Trump issued a statement saying that the sultan "brought peace and prosperity to his country and was a friend to all. His unprecedented efforts to engage in dialogue and achieve peace in the region showed us the importance of listening to all viewpoints.''
Former President Jimmy Carter also expressed sadness, saying: "His voice for peace and tolerance in the Middle East will be missed. He was a wise counsel and ally to me in the White House.''
Sultan Qaboos' outward-looking worldview could not have contrasted more sharply than that of his father, Sultan Said bin Taimur, under whose rule the sultanate more resembled a medieval state. Slavery was legal, no one could travel abroad and music was banned. At the time, the country, which is nearly the size of Poland, had only 10 kilometres (6.21 miles) of paved roads.
Yet Sultan Said let his son Qaboos, born in Salalah on Nov. 18, 1940, travel to study in England. Qaboos' time abroad included schooling at Britain's Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and training with the Scottish Rifles Regiment in what was then West Germany.
Qaboos returned to Salalah in 1964 but found himself instead locked away in a palace. Music cassettes sent to him from friends abroad included secret messages from the British. London was frustrated with Sultan Said, who had grown increasingly eccentric after surviving an assassination attempt and as Communist rebels kept up their offensive in the sultanate's Dhofar region.
A July 23, 1970 palace coup ended up with Sultan Said shooting himself in the foot before going into exile in London. Qaboos took power.
"Yesterday, Oman was in darkness,'' Sultan Qaboos said after the coup. "But tomorrow, a new dawn will rise for Oman and its people.''
Sultan Qaboos quickly moved toward modernizing the country, building the schools, hospitals and roads his father didn't. With the help of Iranian forces under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the British and Jordan, the sultan beat back the Dhofar rebellion.
"You can see the sultan's fingerprints," Grappo said. "They're just everywhere.''
Over time, Sultan Qaboos introduced what amounted to a written constitution, created a parliament and granted citizens limited political freedoms. But the sultan always had final say. In a sign of his strong grip, he also served as prime minister and minister of defines, finance and foreign affairs, as well as governor of the sultanate's Central Bank.
"Holding all these positions in government probably sort of constrained his country in the sense of developing senior leadership,'' Grappo said.
That strong grip extended to any sign of dissent. The Royal Oman Police often patrol in riot-ready vehicles with chicken wire covering the windows, something only seen in the island nation of Bahrain which has faced years of low-level unrest. U.S. diplomats routinely describe the Omani press as "muzzled" and even private outlets self-censor out of fear of running afoul of so-called "red lines". All public gatherings require government permission.
Small protests broke out as part of the wider Arab Spring unrest in 2011, revealing discontent over corruption, unemployment and rising prices within the sultanate.
Oman was one of the few countries in the Arab world to maintain ties with Egypt after Egyptian President Anwar Sadat signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, and acted as a mediator between Iran and Iraq during their ruinous eight-year war. It has also long served as a quiet base for U.S. military operations, including a failed 1980 attempt to free hostages held by Iran after the U.S. Embassy takeover in Tehran.
As he grew older, Sultan Qaboos also grew increasingly reclusive. He is known to have had three major passions – reading, music and yachting.
He "read voraciously,'' Grappo said, played the organ and lute. He created a symphony orchestra and opened a royal opera house in Muscat in 2011. His yacht "Al Said'' is among the world's largest and was frequently seen anchored in Muscat's mountain-ringed harbour.
Sultan Qaboos was briefly married to a first cousin. They had no children and divorced in 1979. (AP)