The death of Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said, the modernising ruler of Oman, marks the end of a long period of stability, development and neutrality in the Sultanate. While he has no heir in place, his passing also enters the Sultanate into a transitional phase that will need to be managed effectively if Oman is to remain a constructive actor in a troubled region.
Educated in India and at the British Royal Academy Sandhurst, Sultan Qaboos rose to power under exceptional circumstances in 1970. At the age of 29, he toppled his highly conservative and anti-modern father, Sultan Said bin Taimur in a British-backed coup. He embarked on a process of modernisation of the traditionalist Sultanate which at the time had no more than a few kilometres of paved road. During the nearly five decades of his rule, he transformed Oman from a backward and dilapidated country into a modern state, with its capital Muscat one of the most architecturally beautiful cities in the Middle East.
The Sultan’s authoritarian transformative journey for his country was by no means smooth. Initially, he had to deal with a serious rebellion, led by a Marxist group called the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Persian Gulf (PFLPG), subsequently renamed as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman (PFLO) that had established itself in Oman’s southern province of Dhofar. The PFLO was supported by the leftist Ba’thist regimes in Syria and Iraq, the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen as well as the Soviet Union. However, with British help and Iranian force deployment under the pro-Western monarchy of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, Qaboos was able to claim victory against the rebellion in the second half of the 1970s and unite his country.
The Sultan made effective use of Oman’s limited oil resources and manpower, given that a majority of the country’s more than 4.5 million population is made up of Omanis in contrast to some of its neighbouring Arab states where the nationals are in the minority, to undertake a visionary process of modernisation. Aiding him in his mission was Oman’s geographical position with control over the southern tip of the strategic Strait of Hormuz that connects the Arabic Gulf to the Gulf of Oman and through which today flows 20 percent of the world’s oil consumption.
In building a new state, he pursued a mixed approach to Oman’s transformation. On the one hand, he emphasised the importance of modern education and health services and the urgency for an economy that would be quite diversified and open to foreign investment. On the other, he ensured that Omanis maintained many of their traditions as Arabs and Muslims that distinguished them as a people in their own right.
Despite being pro-Western and, more specifically, pro-British, and having territorial differences with the United Arab Emirates, he pursued largely a foreign policy of neutrality and peacemaking in the region. He avoided entanglements in regional disputes and rivalries as much as possible. While joining five other neighbouring states, led by Saudi Arabia, in the Gulf Cooperation Council as a regional organisation in the wake of Iran’s transition into a revolutionary Islamic Republic 40 years ago, he was keen not to let his country be dwarfed in disputes. He maintained good neighbourly relations with Iran. As one of the latest examples of his cooperative and conflict-resolving approach, his government secretly hosted the initial meeting between the Iranians and Americans that eventually led to the conclusion of the multilateral Iran nuclear agreement of July 2015, which is now on life-support due to President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the deal and his policy of maximum pressure on Iran.
Sultan Qaboos was by no means a democrat. He was an absolute ruler, governing his country with an iron fist, similar to that in other countries in the region. In the wake of the popular uprisings dubbed as the ‘Arab Spring’, there were serious protests across Oman for more jobs, better wages and no corruption in 2011. Initially, the authorities appeared to be tolerant, with a promise of policy changes, but ultimately the protests were put down forcefully. Even so, the Sultan granted the Consultative Council more powers, but only within the limits required by his role as pivotal to the operation of Omani politics.
Sultan Qaboos will be remembered for the degree of stability and modernity that he delivered his country. The Sultan’s successor, his cousin and former Culture Minister, Haitham bin Tariq Al-Said, will surely have very big shoes to fill, although he has made a promising start by pledging in his inaugural address that he will continue to follow the policy path adopted for Oman by the late Sultan’.
Amin Saikal is the co-author (with James Piscaori) of Islam Beyond Borders: The Umma in World Politics (Cambridge University Press, 2019).
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