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Sultan Qaboos Brought Light and Modernity to Oman

Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman effectively managed an impossible challenge — keeping his nation at peace in the world’s most volatile region.
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Muscat, Oman © Sabino Parente / Shutterstock

January 13, 2020 15:02 EDT

Despite knowledge of his illness, I was stunned and saddened by the death on January 10 of Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman. I had come to know Sultan Qaboos, who ruled Oman for 49 years, as an American diplomat. I served two assignments in Oman, as deputy chief of mission between 1998 and 2001, and as ambassador 2006 to 2009. In the course of those six-plus years, I met with Qaboos at least 25 times, sometimes in the company of visiting senior State and Defense Department officials, once with the vice-president and numerous times one-on-one.

In those one-on-one sessions, the two of us were the only ones in the room. While we would always engage in discussion of the issues of the day, there were also times that he would share experiences of his life and the impact they had had on him, as well as his views on other issues, like the role of women in society and government. Sultan Qaboos was very progressive — he appointed the Arab world’s first woman ambassador to the US, included numerous women in his cabinets, and balanced his male-female appointees to the upper chamber of the Majlis Oman, the country’s parliament.

We talked about the environment, health, religion and even our favorite foods. Aware of my love for hiking, he occasionally would suggest places he knew. He would also caution me about Oman’s deadly snakes, telling me to watch out because they don’t always strike from the front. He told me about some of those experiences, too.

Qaboos was unknown to most Americans. He may have been seen as just another monarch of a rich Gulf state. In fact, however, he was a most atypical ruler, the architype of the benevolent sovereign genuinely loved by the people of that ancient land. He was also a good, though quiet, friend of the US. He administered unquestioned absolute power in this small nation on the southeastern corner of the Arabian Peninsula. He governed, however, as an enlightened king reminiscent of the Golden Age of Islam of the 9th and 10th centuries. His tolerance and a soft touch forever endeared him to the people of Oman and even outsiders, including myself.

Monarch on a Mission

With the help of British Army officers, Qaboos deposed his father in 1970 in a bloodless coup. Said bin Taimoor had kept his nation locked in the 17th century, with no electricity, telephones or roads, despite the country’s then untapped oil wealth. A tiny missionary-staffed hospital and a school in Muscat were all that existed, and then only for the handful of elites and expats. Even eyeglasses were prohibited, and the gates to the old city of Muscat were locked every night.

Qaboos sought to “bring light into the darkness” of his backward nation by using the country’s then known but untapped oil. But first, he needed to end a rebellion that had been raging unresolved in the Dhofar region in the country’s south since 1962. Omanis would see the ruling style that would characterize their new sultan’s reign. He extended amnesty to the rebels and their leadership, and promised the neglected and isolated region a share of the economic benefits soon to come.

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He lived up to that promise with an international airport, one of the world’s major container trans-shipment ports, schools, a university and roads connecting it to the country’s north and Muscat. Dhofar, Qaboos’ birthplace, remained close to him throughout his life. He would visit there often.

With the help of British Army officers and troops from Iran — then still under the shah — and Jordan, Qaboos was able to bring the rebellion to an end in 1976 and immediately set about with determination to build a nation. He placed a premium on health, education, transportation and communication. Oman generally has spent more on its health and education than on national security, an achievement he never bragged about but was most proud of.

Transportation and communication were indispensable to his grand plan: create a genuinely unified Omani state. He wanted to unite his entire nation, comprised largely of fractious, dispersed desert tribes, remote coastal fishing villages and a handful of small commercial towns. His overriding goal was clear: Aware of his country’s proud and noble history, he sought to forge and nurture a single Omani identity.

Qaboos governed with modesty and humility. Aware of the unsettling manner in which he had removed his father, he withheld claiming the title of sultan until having received the bayah, or oath of allegiance, from the sheikhs of the major Omani tribes. Over a period of a year, while still leading the battle against the rebellion, he visited each of them to outline his plans for governing and developing the country. Only after having won their support did he assume the title of sultan of Oman.

Lesson in Persuasion

He once shared with me a story of what would typify his style and approach to governing. In the early years of his reign, he wanted to build roads through the country’s more isolated areas. In one particularly remote region, sheikhs of three large tribes objected to what they saw as unnecessary trappings of modernity. His advisers and military commanders recommended dispatching troops to force the sheikhs to accept the construction crews and protect the road builders.

Instead, Qaboos invited the three holdouts to his palace and hosted them at a royal banquet, treating them as honored guests. During the dinner, the subject of the roads was never raised. After the feast, he escorted them outside and presented each of them with a brand-new European luxury sedan, but without four-wheel drive. Anxious to show off their new sultan-gifted cars to their tribal members, they eagerly sought the construction of the road.

Today, Omanis are among the best educated and cared for people in the Middle East. Schooling became mandatory for girls as well as boys, as did the teaching of English. For children who lived in the more mountainous regions, royal air force of Oman helicopters would “bus” the students to and from their schools at the beginning and end of every school week. Dorms were built to house them while in school.

Hospitals and clinics are accessible to every Omani. Even in some of the more remote mountain villages I would visit as the US ambassador, I rarely failed to spot a clinic either in or very near the village. To properly staff the hospitals and clinics, Qaboos ensured that Omani health-care providers received quality training mostly in the UK and the US. He was dubious of other nations that claimed cradle-to-grave medical care, but gave little attention to the quality of that care. Today, Omanis can train most of their doctors, nurses and medical technicians in-country.

Later in his life, Qaboos acquired a reputation for aloofness. His suspicion of the press was well known, and he interacted very little with the media, even the tame and controlled Omani media. But for a significant period of his reign, every year he would venture out to various areas of the sultanate for four to six weeks for his popular “meet the people” tours. Setting up camp and accompanied by assorted ministers, he would hold court every day with any and all Omanis wishing a word with him.

He sometimes would motion to a minister to take notes and then would follow up to see that the relevant matter was addressed. From Bedouins to sheikhs, all were welcome. In the evenings, he would host residents of nearby communities for expansive, traditional Omani dinners. In his later years, these tours were scaled back to every other year until his illness made it impossible to leave the palace.

Renaissance Man of the Middle East

Qaboos was a remarkable human being, the apotheosis of a polymath. His interests and knowledge were broad and deep. As a young student sent to study in the UK, he lived with an Anglican parson. He attended Sunday services and took a particular liking to the church’s pipe organ music. Learning of his son’s attendance at non-Muslim services, his father ordered the parson to leave the young Qaboos at home to read his Quran. The parson obliged. One evening, however, the parson and his wife heard the church’s pipe organ and rushed to see who was playing. It was Qaboos, who had found a way to enter the locked church to learn and teach himself to play the instrument.

Pipe organ music and all Western classical music would become a life-long passion. He started the all-Omani Royal Oman Symphony Orchestra, with musicians and their music education paid from his own funds. The orchestra plays both Western classical music as well as traditional Arab music, for which he also had a fondness. He would later build a magnificent opera house, constructed in traditional but elegant Omani and Islamic architectural style, for orchestral and opera performances.

The shelves of the libraries in his palaces are filled floor-to-ceiling with books on every subject, but especially music books. Each of the armed forces and the national police have military bands. At a farewell event he hosted for my wife and me before our departure, the royal army of Oman band played several famous Broadway hits he enjoyed. How he had learned they were also my favorites I never learned, though he struck a playful smile when I asked.

Those who may have visited the larger cities of the Gulf and then come to Muscat are struck by Oman’s unique charm. There are no glitzy high-rises against Muscat’s striking natural landscape — buildings must conform to strict codes to preserve the traditional style. That was Qaboos, too. Culture and heritage reinforce the identity he strove to foster in the Omani people.

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His interests spanned art, architecture, astronomy, ecology, history, religion, political affairs and agriculture — he authored one book on the varieties of dates of Oman. Following his return from education, including at the Sandhurst Royal Military Academy in Britain and service in a British Army unit detailed to NATO in Europe, Qaboos’ father ordered him back to Oman and placed him under house arrest in Salalah. He was ordered to read and study only the Quran, which he pursued with vigor.

He secured the services of several learned Muslim scholars, read voraciously not only the Quran but also the hadiths — the sayings of the prophet — and other theological texts, becoming something of a religious scholar himself. He could quote extensively from Islamic scripture and also argue interpretation. His knowledge of Islam would guide his approach to governance, tolerance and inquiry. He disdained extremism as contrary to genuine Islam and was suspicious of feigned piety.

Oman to this day hosts places of worship for Christians and Hindus, often on land donated by Qaboos. Their services, like those of the mosques of Oman’s three sects of Islam — Ibadism, Sunni and Shia — are open to all.

A Sense of History and Identity

Qaboos was well aware of Oman’s once proud history, largely from the 19th century when a great grandfather several generations removed ruled an empire throughout the Indian Ocean, including possessions in Africa, India and present-day Pakistan. Oman had been visited by Portuguese explorers in the 15th and 16th centuries, who established ports along its coast. It was Qaboos’ ancestors of the al-Bu Said family who led the effort to oust the Portuguese and reclaim the ports. Oman was never subject to colonization. The dynasty of the al-Said was established in 1745 when its first sultan ousted Persian occupiers.

In the early 19th century, when Oman was a great sea power, Said Bin Sultan dispatched an embassy to the America after signing a Treaty of Amity and Commerce with the US in 1833. Traveling in a small vessel called The Sultanah, they sailed for months before reaching the port of New York. Omani sailors have been engaged in long-distance sea travel, including as far as China, since the fourth century. Ambassador Naaman spent nine months in the US and laid the groundwork for future US-Oman relations.

Qaboos understood that his small nation could not survive without more powerful friends. He quickly tapped into his British network and established strong ties with both the house of Windsor and the UK armed forces. In 1980, in the midst of the revolution in Iran, he reached out as his 19th-century predecessor had to the US.

Though the ties were never as close as they were with Britain, Qaboos would become a close but silent ally of the Americans. The rescue mission of US hostages in Iran was launched from Oman. Sailors from the USS Cole attacked by al-Qaeda forces in neighboring Yemen, and those requiring immediate treatment were first medevacked to an Omani airbase outside Salalah. Oman hosted a massive field hospital for US troops fighting in Afghanistan. US forces regularly train with all branches of Oman’s military. Most importantly, Oman hosts major pre-positioning facilities for American military supplies and equipment for use in the Middle East and South Asian theaters.

He never asked for anything in return. Shortly after opening an embassy in Muscat in 1972, the US began a USAID mission, focused mostly on health care and education. By the mid-80s, however, the US and Oman agreed that Oman had sufficient wealth to stand on its own and the aid was ended.

In a Tough Neighborhood, Learn to Get Along

Despite these ties with the West, Qaboos charted an independent course in foreign affairs, befriending his two neighbors, Saudi Arabia and Iran. He once explained to me that we have to survive in this region and get along with the neighbors we have. Nevertheless, he reserved a healthy skepticism of the religious zeal that has characterized the leaderships of both countries and still accounts for much of the bitter animus between them.

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Oman’s relationship with Iran was a sore point in its ties with the US. But he remained steadfast in keeping his country out of the tension that continues to define the US-Iran relationship. Nevertheless, he parlayed his connection with Iran, relaying messages between Washington and Tehran and hosting the talks that led to the Iran nuclear agreement. He also used his connections to retrieve Americans held in Iran and Yemen.

Qaboos effectively managed an impossible challenge, keeping his nation at peace in the world’s most volatile region. Oman has no enemies. Decisions he made reflected the interests of his small nation yet rarely antagonized others. In the latter years of his reign, he was often visited by world leaders for advice and counsel. Only one sitting US president, Bill Clinton, visited him in Oman, though George H. W. Bush visited shortly after leaving office. Qaboos, not particularly enamored of long-distance travel, visited Washington only once as sultan, in 1983, to meet President Reagan. He was invited by every president to come, however. I tried repeatedly to convince him without success, sadly.

The term “transformational” barely approximates a description of Qaboos and his reign. He built Oman, leaving his mark in practically every aspect of the nation: culture, foreign affairs, defense, architecture, education, transportation, environment and health.

His wisdom may be seen in his newly named successor, Sayyid Haitham bin Tariq. Haitham’s areas of prior government experience were in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Heritage and Culture, where he was minister. Many observers of the sultanate had criticized Qaboos for not adequately grooming a successor. In fact, however, Qaboos appears to have prepared Haitham for his role by steeping him in the two areas Qaboos believed were most essential for a successful Omani sultan, the country’s unique identity through culture and history, and its collegial but firmly independent foreign policy.

Qaboos’ wisdom may have outsmarted all of us and may prove enduring. The sultan of Oman was a ruler and statesman that the region likely won’t see again for a long time.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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