Sultan Qaboos was born in Salalah, on the Southern Coast of Oman, as the only son of Sultan Said bin Taimur, a Mayo Alumnus - who ruled Oman since 1930.
By Ambassador Anil Wadhwa
Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said of Oman, the longest-serving monarch in the gulf, who ruled for 49 years, has passed away, leaving behind a rich legacy as the father of modern Oman. He was apparently suffering from Colon cancer. His cousin Haitham Bin Tariq Al Said, 65, well disposed to India, and the current Culture and Heritage Minister was sworn in as the new Sultan on 11 January 2020.
Sultan Qaboos was born in Salalah, on the Southern Coast of Oman, as the only son of Sultan Said bin Taimur, a Mayo Alumnus – who ruled Oman since 1930. Qaboos had a lonely childhood and was not even allowed to go into the sea. His grandfather abdicated the throne, lived in India from 1930 to 1965 and is now buried in Mumbai. Qaboos visited him when he was 12, and was privately tutored by Shankar Dayal Sharma, who rose to become the President of India. In 1996, when Shankar Dayal Sharma visited Oman as President, Sultan Qaboos broke protocol to receive him at the airport, went up to the plane to welcome him, drove him personally from the airport, and made it a point to accompany him for his engagements.
In 1960, Qaboos went on to study at the British Royal military Academy in Sandhurst, served in the British army for a year, and after an educational tour of the world, returned to Oman in 1964. He was asked to study Islam and the Omani culture and heritage by his father, who had by then become aloof, and had kept Oman cloistered from the outside world. A 1966 coup attempt had left Qaboos’s father paranoid. The British wanted Oman to open up to the outside world due to the discovery of oil in the 1960s, and helped Qaboos to depose his father in a bloodless coup in 1970. Sultan Qaboos faced a number of initial challenges – primarily fending off rebels from Dhofar, which was achieved with the help of Britain, Jordan and Iran. Unlike his father who had not been seen by his subjects in years, he presented himself in public. He was able to meet the challenge of various factions, regions and individuals by uniting them with a combination of the offer of responsible positions and accommodating their wishes. He devoted himself to being a nation builder, at the same time preserving Omani culture and identity. His marriage to Nawwal bint Tariq, a cousin in 1978 – ended in two years without any issues.
Qaboos established Oman’s first cabinet, government departments and two Advisory bodies, including the elected Shura Council representing the country’s provinces or Wilayats. In 1996, he ensured that Oman got its Constitution. Qaboos also modernized the Omani army. Given the background of the rebellion and regional rivalries, he kept extensive executive powers in his hands. Towards his later years, he kept shifting palaces, and was known to sleep very little through the night – listening to music and reading but making up on sleep in the early hours of the morning. He read widely, and enjoyed in depth discussions. His sense of history was vast and extensive. In 2011, when Oman also saw street protests in line with Arab Spring; protestors demanded jobs, higher pay, lower taxes and wider political reforms but did not seek the removal of Qaboos – a testimony to his popularity.
He responded by creating 50,000 new jobs, increasing state spending in public services and expanding powers of the elected Shura Council. The process of “Omanisation” has continued since then- and even though investors wanted to bring in workers from cheaper destinations – Qaboos stood firm in his decision to benefit Omanis first. Under Sultan Qaboos, defence , trade, investment and people to people ties as well as intelligence cooperation with India all grew leaps and bounds. 770,000 Indians live and work in Oman. Qaboos employed a number of Indians as his personal staff. He loved Indian food and sweets – especially jalebis and a number of Indian cooks were employed in the Royal Palaces. He has a healthy respect for Indian traditions, including medicine, consulted Indian astrologers and tarot readers, and was impressed by the dedication of Indian workers in Oman. He took personal interest in setting up two Indian temples in Oman, and at least 1000 Indians – long term residents of Oman – were granted Omani citizenship during his tenure.
Sultan laid stress on education, healthcare, greater participation of women in civil affairs, roads and highways, trade, and opening up the economy to the non-oil sectors like tourism. Qaboos admired classical music, and in 2011 opened the Royal Oman Opera house in Muscat. During the visit of Indian PM Manmohan Singh to Muscat in 2009, he was seen drumming on the dining table as the music played at the State banquet. Under Qaboos, Oman saw the setting up of a number of oil refineries, flour mills, ports as well as fish processing plants. Qaboos followed a policy of good neighborliness and friendly ties with different countries -he was “a friend of all and a foe of none”.
Oman under Qaboos emerged as a trusted mediator in a number of disputes, helping defuse the 2013 US- Iran standoff; and playing a key role reaching a nuclear deal between Iran and big powers, including the US, in 2015. Qaboos maintained excellent relations with regional Sunni/Shia rivals Saudi Arabia as well as Iran. Qaboos helped release 15 UK sailors from Iran in 2007 and signed a landmark 25-year agreement with Iran for supply of natural gas. Oman did not join Saudi Arabia and UAE in the war against the rebel Houthis in Yemen, advocating dialogue.
This enabled Oman to play a critical role in the release of Father Tom Uzhunnalil, the Vatican priest of Indian nationality abducted in Yemen in March 2016 and released in September 2017. Qaboos shunned taking sides in a dispute between Qatar and the GCC states of Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain. This earned Sultan Qaboos the reputation of being messenger of peace, and India also honoured him with the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding in 2004.
(The author was former Secretary (East) in the Ministry of External Affairs and served as the Indian Ambassador to Oman between 2007-2011. He has also served as the Indian Ambassador to Italy, Thailand and Poland and is currently a Distinguished Fellow with the Vivekananda International Foundation, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal.)