Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for January 11th, 2020

Oman after Sultan Qaboos

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 11th January, 2020

Sultan Qaboos 1The death of Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said at the age of 79 brings to an end half a century of extraordinary one man rule that transformed the Gulf state from a conservative backwater into a modern country, which nonetheless retained much of its cultural individuality. Once the centre of a maritime empire, Oman had stagnated under Qaboos’s father, whose resistance to modernity meant that in 1970 there were only 10 kilometres of paved road in the country and the gates of the walled capital, Muscat, were locked at night. With the approval of the British, who had a military presence in Oman, Qaboos seized power in a bloodless palace coup and gradually opened the country up to the outside world, while deliberately avoiding the sort of brash modernisation taking place in nearby Dubai. Qaboos was an absolute monarch — and indeed resisted pressure from one of his uncles to cede more power to an elected assembly — but was viewed by most of the foreign diplomats in Muscat as that rarest of creatures: a benign dictator. When the so-called Arab Spring spread across North Africa and the Middle East in 2011 there were some small demonstrations in Oman, though nothing like on the scale in Bahrain, for example. A couple of people were killed and others were arrested, but the Sultan largely quelled the unrest through some minor reforms and benefit packages. What was clear was that he still retained the affection, even love, of most of his people.

Muscat opera houseQaboos had been ill for several years, reportedly with colon cancer, for which he sought treatment in Germany and Belgium. Yet he did not designate someone to take interim charge, or indeed publicly announce a successor. Although he had one, brief marriage which ended in divorce, unlike most rulers in the Gulf he fathered no children, nor does he appear to have had any wish to. He thus sometimes appeared a somewhat isolated figure, though that did not prevent him stamping his own ideas on the country and determining its direction. Though Oman is a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), it has resisted some potential areas of closer integration, such as a common currency, and in foreign affairs Qaboos avoided lining up with Saudi Arabia and the UAE against Iran. Oman was also a pioneer in the region in opening lines of contact with the state of Israel. Despite his military training (at Sandhurst), the Sultan’s bent was largely artistic; one of most remarkable legacies is Muscat’s beautiful opera house together with a full symphony orchestra.

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