Oman's Sultan Qaboos: Moderation and modernisation amid regional upheaval

Oman's Sultan Qaboos: Moderation and modernisation amid regional upheaval
Oman's long-reigning Sultan Qaboos has been remembered for mediation and non-intervention in a turbulent region, winning the hearts and minds of Omanis.
5 min read
11 January, 2020
Sultan Qaboos died aged 79 [Getty]
A forward-looking yet authoritarian force, Oman's Sultan Qaboos, who died on Friday aged 79, transformed the small Gulf nation into a modern state, and a moderate and sought-after mediator in the midst of a region packed with political and military heavyweights vying for power.

The well-respected and sultan - who was also the longest-reigning ruler in the modern Arab world - had no sons to succeed him. However the royal family opted for Qaboos' choice of heir,
Haitham bin Tariq, which observers claim indicates the unity Qaboos helped foster.

Haitham bin Tariq was named in a sealed letter that Qaboos had meticulously prepared in case of a deadlock.

Qaboos was born on 18 November, 1940, into the centuries-old Al-Said dynasty in the southern provincial capital of Salalah, at a time when most areas of the Gulf were isolated villages on the margins of the modern world.

Older Omanis recall the capital Muscat had no electricity or running water and the gates of the medieval city were locked at dusk.

Qaboos had close ties with the United Kingdom, stemming from his education the elite Sandhurst Royal Military Academy as a youth, graduating in 1962.

He went on to join a British infantry battalion in Germany, returning home to bide his time under the close watch of his father, Sultan Said bin Taymur.

On 23 July, 1970, Qaboos deposed his father in a British-backed palace coup, pledging "a new era" for the nation.

Flags at UK royal residences and government buildings flew at half mast on Saturday to mark Qaboos' passing and the special relationship between the two nations.

Mediator in a turbulent Strait

Located on the Strait of Hormuz - the narrow seaway essential to much of the world's oil transport - Oman also lies between regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Qaboos maintained good ties with both nations, a balancing act that made his capital a must-stop for Western and Arab diplomats as well as military chiefs alike.

The sultan's first foreign trip was to Iran, whose shah - along with the British - helped him quell the lengthy Marxist insurgency in the restive Dhofar region.

Those ties endured through Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution that ushered in a Shia theocracy.

Muscat would serve as the back channel for talks between the United States and Iran in the lead-up to a landmark 2015 nuclear deal.

Qaboos also worked to preserve ties with Saudi Arabia and the rest of the wealthy six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council to which Oman belongs, but stuck to his principle of non-interference. 

In 2015, Oman was the only GCC country not to join a Saudi-led military coalition against Iran-backed Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen.

It leveraged this neutrality to mediate the release of multiple foreign hostages captured by Yemen's warring factions.

Muscat also maintained close military and economic ties with Britain and the US.

Unlike other Arab states, Qaboos did not contest Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel, opening a trade office in Tel Aviv in the mid-1990s, but later shuttered in 2000 during the second Palestinian Intifada.

Benjamin Netanyahu visits Muscat in 2018 [Getty]

In October 2018, Oman hinted at normalising ties with Israel after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held surprise talks with Qaboos in Muscat - a move scorned by Palestinians. 

Oman was not spared Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, to which Qaboos responded by sacking ministers accused of corruption. 

However his monarchy was absolute and his government left no space for opposition, enforcing its rule by shuttering the independent Azzaman newspaper and jailing its editor as well as the writer of a critical article.

Although authoritarian, Qaboos was revered by many for his inclusive political strategy, maintaining good relationships with all of Oman's major tribes, families and sociopolitical groups, Gulf analyst Cinzia Bianco said on Twitter.

He was further respected for his policy of welcoming back political rivals.

Kristian Ulrichsen, a Gulf-focused research fellow at the Baker Institute for Public Policy tweeted: "One of the most visible, but not the only, example of Sultan Qaboos's decision to co-opt former dissidents is Yusuf bin Alawi, the longtime Minister Responsible for Foreign Affairs, and a member of the Dhofar Liberation Front in the 1960s."

Modicum of democracy in absolute monarchy

Qaboos assumed power as an unknown and spent his first years cultivating the respect of his countrymen, from the mountainous interior to the coast. 

"In the early years, he went village to village and he had a weekly radio address - that was the only way to reach the entire population at the time," said Muscat-based public policy analyst Ahmed al-Mukhaini.

Qaboos channelled revenues from fledgling oil exports into infrastructure, taking the country from having just a handful of primary schools and some eight kilometres (six miles) of paved roads to a modern state with well over 1,000 schools and a massive highway network.

The sultan also commissioned an opera house for Muscat, its packed calendar a testament to his support for the arts.

But Qaboos was no ceremonial monarch. He held every top post, from commander of the armed forces to finance minister.

In 1991, he offered a modicum of democracy, creating a Consultative Council - with elected members - to complement the State Council - whose members he appointed. 

During nearly five decades in power, Qaboos chose never to remarry after a brief union in 1976.

In his final years, he was believed to be suffering from colon cancer and rarely appeared in public following medical treatment in Germany in March 2015.

When he did, the gaunt, bronzed sultan still cut a refined figure in sumptuous robes and colourful turbans.

Father of the nation

Qaboos, "was the closest figure possible to a Father of the Nation," tweeted Bianco.

"He was seen as the embodiment of the Sultanate national identity," she said, adding that this was reflected in his successor, the former culture and heritage minister chosen over military-affiliated rivals.

Ulrichsen emphasised Qaboos' "charismatic authority" which "became so synonymous with Oman as a modern nation-state that it will naturally be difficult for any successor to replicate that, at least at the beginning."

Agencies contributed to this report.

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