Oman’s Sultan Qaboos, who died on Friday aged 79, transformed the former Arabian Peninsula backwater into a modern state and sought-after mediator while shielding the sultanate from a region in turmoil.
The intensely private Sultan — the longest-reigning ruler in the modern Arab world — left no apparent heir and the royal family was charged with selecting a successor. Instead, however, they opted for the Sultan’s own choice, his cousin Haitham bin Tariq, who was named in a sealed letter that Sultan Qaboos had prepared in case of a deadlock.
Sultan Qaboos was born on November 18, 1940, into the centuries-old Al-Said dynasty in the southern provincial capital of Salalah, in an isolated country on the margins of the modern world. The young Qaboos was sent abroad for his education to Britain, attending the elite Sandhurst Royal Military Academy from where he graduated in 1962.
He went on to join a British infantry battalion in Germany, returning home to bide his time under the close watch of his father, Sultan Said bin Taymur. On July 23, 1970, he deposed his father in a palace coup, pledging “a new era” for the nation.
Good ties with rivals
Oman is strategically located on the Strait of Hormuz — the narrow seaway through which much of the world’s oil supply passes — and between regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia. Sultan Qaboos maintained good ties with both nations, a balancing act that made his capital a must-stop for Western and Arab diplomats as well as military chiefs alike.
The Sultan’s first foreign trip was to Iran, whose Shah — along with the British — helped him quell the Marxist insurgency he inherited from his father in the restive Dhofar region. Those ties endured through Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution that ushered in a Shia theocracy. Muscat would serve as the back channel for talks between the United States and Iran in the lead-up to a landmark 2015 nuclear deal.
Neutrality over Yemen
Sultan Qaboos also worked to preserve ties with Saudi Arabia and the rest of the wealthy six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council to which Oman belongs, but stuck to his principle of non-interference.
In 2015, Oman was the only GCC country not to join a Saudi-led military coalition against Iran-backed Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen. It leveraged this neutrality to mediate the release of multiple foreign hostages captured by Yemen’s warring factions. Muscat also maintained close military and economic ties with Britain and the U.S. Unlike other Arab states, Sultan Qaboos did not contest Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel, opening a trade office in Tel Aviv in the mid-1990s — shuttered in 2000 during a Palestinian uprising.
Arab Spring protests
Sultan Qaboos faced rare protests at the height of the Arab Spring in 2011 and responded by sacking Ministers accused of corruption. But his government left no space for opposition, shuttering the independent Azzaman newspaper and jailing its editor as well as the writer of a critical article.
Sultan Qaboos assumed power as an unknown and spent his first years cultivating the respect of his countrymen, from the mountainous interior to the coast.
He channelled revenues from fledgling oil exports into infrastructure, taking the country from having just a handful of primary schools and some 8 km of paved roads to a modern state with well over 1,000 schools and a massive highway network.
But Sultan Qaboos was no ceremonial monarch. He held every top post, from Commander of the Armed Forces to Finance Minister.