The unique legacy of Sultan Qaboos

Sultan Qaboos left behind a modern, safe, stable and viable country with strong institutions and advanced infrastructure, a true state.
Wednesday 15/01/2020
In this Monday, Jan. 14, 2019 file photo, Sultan of Oman Qaboos bin Said sits during a meeting with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the Beit Al Baraka Royal Palace in Muscat, Oman. (AP)
In this Monday, Jan. 14, 2019 file photo, Sultan of Oman Qaboos bin Said sits during a meeting with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the Beit Al Baraka Royal Palace in Muscat, Oman. (AP)

Few leaders in the Arab region have left countries that are viable and developed as well as in touch with everything that is civilised.

Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, for example, established and built the United Arab Emirates and King Hussein built the modern Jordan but revolutionary leaders such as Gamal Abdel Nasser, Muammar Qaddafi, Saddam Hussein, Hafez Assad or Houari Boumediene left nothing but ruin.

The situation in Egypt improved under Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Butit is difficult to bet on any prosperous future for  Libya, Iraq, Syria or Algeria, barring a miracle in a world where miracles are rare.

Omani Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said died January 10 after age 79. He ascended to the Omani throne in 1970 and ruled wisely for nearly 50 years. He left behind a modern, safe, stable and viable country with strong institutions and advanced infrastructure, a true state.

Oman still faces many challenges but remains a state in the full sense of the word, not a security apparatus and slogans that have nothing to do with reality. The smooth transfer of authority from Sultan Qaboos to his cousin Haitham bin Tariq Al Said, whom Sultan Qaboos had chosen to be his successor, is a testimony to the country’s stability.

Perhaps the late sultan chose Sultan Haitham because he knew the latter was open-minded and experienced with the outside world. Indeed, during the 1970s, the new sultan was studying abroad. He attended the elite and exclusive Brummana High School in Lebanon, rubbing shoulders with other young people from Arab elites.

Perhaps Sultan Qaboos’s most important qualities were courage, wisdom, tolerance and far-sightedness. He did not carry complexes regarding foreigners or Western countries. When he studied in Britain in the 1960s, he would often stop in Aden on his way to London by sea. Aden was still under British mandate and young Qaboos used to say his ambition was to one day transform Muscat into a city like Aden. Look at Muscat today, light-years ahead of Aden.

During the 50 years of his reign (1970-2020), Oman has witnessed a real revolution in every respect. It was a revolution in the positive sense of the word. There is now a country that possesses all the essentials of modern life and living, a far cry from the conditions that had existed under Sultan Qaboos’s father, Sultan Said bin Taimur, when all of Muscat had two schools and two paved roads. As a young sultan, Qaboos showed great wisdom in dealing with the insurgency in the Dhofar governorate, which constitutes one-third of the sultanate.

He had no reservations about using the services of British advisers or foreign troops sent by Shah Pahlavi of Iran and King Hussein of Jordan. That decision helped the Omani government regain control of the 100,000 sq.km of Dhofar.

It was clear to the young sultan that the Dhofar insurgency was part of the Cold War game in the region. Following the independence of South Yemen in 1967, the ex-Soviet Union was trying to gain a bigger foothold in the Arabian Peninsula. In his wisdom, and once the insurgency quelled, Sultan Qaboos did not seek or pursue a path of revenge. Instead, he adopted a policy of assimilation.

From 1974 on, the rebels began to retreat until they were almost trapped in mountains and remote areas. The support they enjoyed from the Dhofar tribes began to shrink quickly. Sultan Qaboos granted the rebels a general amnesty and hundreds of them, including the instigator of the rebellion Muslim bin Nafal, surrendered to Omani authorities.

Sultan Qaboos pardoned the rebels in detention and those who had been sentenced to death and life or long imprisonment. He also created semi-regular military forces under government supervision that he called the National Team Forces, which included rebel factions and Dhofar tribesmen.

The sultan did not hesitate to appoint several former rebels to ministerial and high government positions. Yusef bin Alawi and Abdulaziz al-Rawas were two of these appointees.

Sultan Qaboos also began a comprehensive urbanisation plan in the Dhofar region, using experts and engineers from Britain, Iran, Pakistan, Jordan and Lebanon.

The country’s stability encouraged Sultan Qaboos to take bold initiatives abroad. He took a reserved stance with respect to the Arab League’s decision to expel Egypt following Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem in the fall of 1977.

Oman never severed ties with Egypt and thus could serve as a mediator. During Iraq’s war with Iran, Baghdad sought Oman’s mediation to ask Egypt for desperately needed weapons and equipment.

Oman maintained neighbourly relations with Iran, with which it shares the Strait of Hormuz. The sultanate has always believed that its relation with Iran does not depend on who happens to be in power but has to always take into consideration the reality of the environment. Oman’s good relations with Tehran played a crucial role in facilitating the West’s nuclear agreement with Iran in the summer of 2015.

There is indeed a lot to say about Oman’s exceptionality and its ability to adopt various policies within the Gulf Cooperation Council, especially when it comes to Yemen and the relationship with the Houthis and even with Israel.

In October 2018, Sultan Qaboos received Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in Muscat. Iran did not say a word about that. Actually, Tehran seemed quite satisfied with Netanyahu’s presence in Muscat and grateful to Oman for that presence.

Was Qaboos’s journey as sultan flawless? Of course not. The man, a lover of classical music, managed the sultanate’s affairs during the first 20 years of his reign with extreme precision, setting strict high standards for everyone to follow and drawing the broad lines for the country’s development that he personally supervised.

During the last decade or so, signs of ageing of the regime appeared and the country slowed down. It was only natural for something like that to happen in a regime in which officials are accustomed to sticking to a map that they have been given.

Could the new Omani sultan breathe a new life into the country’s administration and will he steer Oman’s foreign policy away from the pitfalls of egotistical considerations of specific individuals at a time when everything in the region is changing, including in Iran?