Analysis: Sultan Qaboos, loss of senior statesman and interlocutor

31st Jan 2020
Analysis: Sultan Qaboos, loss of senior statesman and interlocutor

Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said (Credit: Tribes of the World/Flickr)

Ahmed Rajab

The death on January 10 of Sultan Qaboos bin Said bin Taimur of Oman has robbed the Middle East of its senior statesman and, arguably, its most seasoned diplomat. It also deprived the West of its prized interlocutor and trusted conduit between various conflicting parties in the volatile Middle East.

When he died, aged 79, Qaboos was the longest-serving head-of-state in the region. He had ruled his country for nearly 50 years.

Qaboos was, for sure, an absolute monarch who ruled by fiat. He did not permit political parties nor did he tolerate dissent. But following street protests in 2011 against corruption, rising unemployment and low salaries Qaboos expanded some powers of the country’s bicameral legislature and implemented several reforms to curb unemployment.

An only son of Said bin Taimur, Qaboos received his early education in Salalah before being sent to a private school in England at age 16. Four years later he joined the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. After graduation in 1962, he joined the British Army, serving in Germany for a year.

He later studied local government subjects in England and rounded up his education with a world tour. When he returned home in 1966 his father, suspicious of his designs, placed him under virtual house arrest in his palace in Salalah.

Contact between father and son was minimal. A British consul at Muscat once reported, in a letter to the British Resident in the Persian Gulf, that when he had asked Qaboos whether he had seen his father’s renowned parrot, Qaboos responded that he had hardly seen his father let alone the parrot.

Qaboos was placed under a strict regime to study the Qur’an and historical works from 9 a.m. to noon every day. His tutor was a senior Qadi (judge) from Muscat, Sheikh Ibrahim as Saif. In the evenings he was lectured by elderly men on Omani etiquette.

His father’s suspicions were confirmed when Qaboos in cahoots with his paternal uncle, Tariq bin Taimur (the father of the current Sultan), and members of the British establishment, overthrew his father in a bloodless coup on July 23, 1970. Key players in coordinating the coup were the MI6 intelligence service and officials in the ministries of defence and foreign affairs. The ousted Sultan was airlifted to Britain where he spent his last two years in the opulence of the Dorchester Hotel in London.

When he ascended the throne Qaboos had to contend with the armed Marxist secessionists in the southern province of Dhofar, bordering Yemen. The war was a costly affair, consuming over half of Oman oil revenues.

Qaboos was able to defeat the insurrectionists with the support of troops provided by Britain, Jordan and Iran, which was then under Shah Mohamed Reza Pahlavi. Oman’s relations with Iran have continued to be cordial with the Ayatullahs who overthrew his friend, the Shah.

During that period some British operatives in Oman tarnished the name of the sultanate by busting UN-imposed sanctions by selling oil and arms to the illegal regime of Ian Smith in the then Southern Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe).

Qaboos’s rule was metamorphic in more ways than one. First, he was able to bring into his fold those interior tribes that had earlier challenged the Sultan’s rule. Second, he was successful in weaving the warring tribes into a cohesive unified nation.

Equally importantly, his efforts in ushering in development have been phenomenal. Using the country’s oil revenues, he embarked on a major construction boom that transformed the face of Muscat and changed what was a backwater country into a modern state. Thanks to his stewardship Oman is now a totally changed place from the days of the obscurantism of his father who eschewed progress and development.

Under Said bin Taimur’s rule, Oman had two hospitals, all missionary run, three primary schools and only 10 km of paved road.

In addition, Qaboos’s father had banned people from smoking in public, playing football, wearing sunglasses, or to talk to anyone in public for more than 15 minutes.
Oman now boasts more than 1,500 schools, more than 20 universities offering various undergraduate and graduate degree programmes, 59 hospitals and 897 medical centres, dispensaries and clinics. Only 10 of the hospitals are private; the rest are Government-owned.

The country’s total road network includes motorways, expressway grade highways, with an eight-lane expressway. There are also main roads and secondary roads. All these achievements endeared Qaboos to the ordinary Omanis.

As far as international affair was concerned, his “Qaboosian” style of quiet diplomacy was beyond category as was his insistence on maintaining an independent foreign policy unswayed by the diktats of Arab heavyweights, such as Saudi Arabia or the UAE. He took risks by receiving in his palace Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister. Any local criticism against Netanyahu was muted.

Qaboos’ chosen successor, his paternal cousin Haitham bin Tariq bin Said bin Taimur is faced with two main challenges: how to implement long-awaited reforms in governance and how to steer the economy away from hydrocarbons.

Haitham is a major business player in the sultanate with vast interests in myriad business ventures, including agriculture, energy, tourism and real estate.

Since 2013, he has been overseeing Vision 2040, Oman’s new long-term strategy which has sought to diversify the economy away from its heavy reliance hydrocarbons. In their stead, the economy will now be constructed on a revamped tourism, logistics, manufacturing, fisheries and mining.

Vision 2040 anticipates the share of the non-oil sector to grow to more than 90 per cent of GDP, as well as a 40 per cent contribution to job creation by the private sector.

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