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Qaboos bin Said Al Said (Qābūs bin Saʿīd Āl Saʿīd or Qaboos bin Saeed in Egyptian-English) passed away on 10 January 2020 in Muscat. Born in Salalah in the southern Dhuffar region on 18 November 1940, the Omani ruler was 79, and though he never divorced his first wife, a daughter of an Al Harthy tribal leader from the Sharqiyyah, a later marriage to Nawwal bint Tariq Al Sa‘id, his cousin, did not last. Neither of the two women produced an heir.
Qaboos spent his youth in Salalah where he was educated in Islamic studies. At the age of 16, his father sent him to a private educational establishment in England and, in 1960, he entered the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst as an officer cadet. After graduating from Sandhurst, he joined a British infantry battalion on operational duty in Germany for one year, and held a staff appointment with the British Army. This military service was followed by a year-long hands-on internship to study local government in England, which led to a world tour before the young Sayyid returned home. The next six years were spent in Salalah under house arrest studying Islam and the history of his country and people.
When the British eventually forced his father, Sultan Sa‘id bin Taymur, to abdicate, Qaboos acceded to the throne on 23 July 1970. He arrived in Muscat a few days later—seeing his own capital for the first time in his life when he was 29 years-old—to begin the task of re-building Oman. On 9 August 1970, Qaboos delivered the first of several speeches setting out his vision for the people and the country, which was probably honed in Salalah during a dark chapter in his life.
The 14th-generation descendant of the founder of the Al Bu Sa‘idi dynasty, which was founded by the Imam Ahmad Bin Sa‘id and that also witnessed the rule of the immensely powerful Sultan Sa‘id Bin Sultan, the founder of the Omani Empire, Sultan Qaboos confronted a secessionist movement that started under his father’s rule.
The founder of the modern Omani state worked against some odds to end the Dhuffar rebellion and, by December 1975, managed to systematically clear the mountainous region of guerrilla activity. The rebellion effectively came to an end though authorities embarked on an unprecedented reconstruction program that provided jobs, dug water-wells, created schools, and established health clinics to ensure that the province would remain loyal. In succeeding years, the Dhuffar was integrated into the rest of the Sultanate, which also witnessed the number of Dhuffaris in senior government positions at high levels.
Over the course of over four decades, His Majesty ushered in his share of fundamental changes, including the transformation of the country’s s two advisory councils—the elected Majlis Al Shurah and the appointed Majlis Al Dawlah—into legislative bodies.
Starting in 1970, Qaboos took pains to explain his domestic and foreign-policy principles and repeatedly explained his motives. His primary objective from 1970 onwards was the Omani citizen, the “human individual.” His goal, Qaboos underlined, was “to ensure happiness ... [and] to give the best of his talent”. He recognized that Omanis had rights and obligations and called on each citizen to “take as much as he gives of his efforts, sweat, sincerity and loyalty to his dear land”. Attentive to subtleties, the ruler never sought loyalty to the Crown, but underscored duty towards country. For Qaboos, land was “sacred”, and people were “noble,” especially when they were ready to work for their “country’s glory, honour, progress and prosperity”. Even if the Sultan was an absolute monarch, he was alert to his nation’s traditional and religious norms.
That was why he was saddened by the clashes that occurred in Sohar and elsewhere in the aftermath of the post-2011 Arab Uprisings although the Sultan was quick to react. He replaced several ministers and undersecretaries, advisers, and Majlis Al Dawlah members and instead of delaying calls for reforms, he espoused freedom of speech by tolerating dissent, supported calls for accountability, and agreed to share power. Acting fast literally meant that the Sultan listened, adapted, and applied many of the demands that were deemed to be in the country’s best interests.
Because all powers were concentrated in the Sultan, who was his own chief of staff of the armed forces, Prime Minister, Minister of Defense, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Chairman of the Central Bank, Qaboos ruled by royal decrees. Still, he introduced a sweeping Basic Law in 1996, and while he continued to appoint officials at will, granted pardons and commuted sentences—which literally affirmed that his authority was inviolable—the monarch paid close attention to local needs notably through his famous annual tour of the Sultanate that allowed him to spend weeks on the road when he could mingle with ordinary citizens.
In September 1995, he was involved in a car accident in Salalah just outside his palace, which claimed the life of one of his most prominent and influential ministers and his right-hand man, then Deputy Prime Minister for Economic and Financial affairs Qais bin Abdul Munim Al Zawawi. The accident shook the throne but Qaboos remained steadfast as he embarked on accelerated construction programs that created a strong infrastructure and facilitated entrepreneurship. The latter was especially important since the ruler believed that Omanis should participate in the creation of wealth and, starting in 1972, offered incentives for private concerns to purchase shares in various state schemes. The country’s first cement factory, for example, started operating in 1973 and Omanis could purchase shares in it.
By 1991, the Year of Industry, the monarch’s views evolved further: wealth was not to be pursued just for its own sake—owning shares in a company—but to encourage active citizen participation in work, which he defined as a “noble” effort that made “life positive and useful.” The ruler warned Omanis that they would “never be able to reduce ... dependence on foreign labour in most of the unskilled professions unless,” they “show[ed] interest and capacity to take over”. At one point, Qaboos even used the term “Omanization,” when he called for the steady replacement by national labour of foreign workers as the country prepared for the period after oil.
Between 1970 and 2019, Qaboos steered a moderate course in foreign policy. The long-standing relationship with Britain continued to be strong and British advisers were to be found in all branches of the government. An agreement was signed with the United States in 1980 providing for American assistance in upgrading Omani military installations and supplying some development aid in return for the US right to pre-stock military equipment in Oman and use some bases on an occasional basis. The agreement was frequently renewed.
Qaboos also forged a policy of strengthening relations with nearby Arab countries, which had been virtually non-existent before 1970. His rapprochement with King Faisal bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud in Riyadh in 1971 ended the traditional enmity between Oman and Saudi Arabia. In 1981, Oman became one of the six founding members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and while the country’s dependence on foreign assistance in winning the Dhofar war and its geographic location on the southern shores of the strategic Straits of Hormuz generally led it to argue within the GCC for closer cooperation with the West in security matters, it seldom hesitated to forge close ties with Iran. Towards that end, Muscat played a vital intermediary role, and always made its limited resources available to lower regional and international tensions.
In fact, while some Iranian military units remained in Dhuffar up to the time of the Iranian revolution in 1979, Oman maintained open lines of communication between the GCC and the Islamic Republic of Iran that spoke volumes about His Majesty’s vision. In recent years, Muscat opted to engage Iran more openly, which irritated its GCC partners, although Riyadh benefitted from the back-channel access to the mullahs.
A strong believer in consistency, Oman was one of the few Arab countries not to break relations with Egypt following the Camp David agreement, and with Iraq, before, during and after the tragic years that shaped that country’s contemporary life. Despite being an oil producer, the sultanate never joined the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) or the smaller Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC), even if it was reluctant to push for economic cooperation that threatened its nascent industries. It was with such a goal in mind that Qaboos distanced his country from the proposed union, fearing that economic and political competition from its more developed neighbours, would adversely affect the Sultanate.
The impact of Sultan Qaboos bin Sa‘id on Oman was undoubtedly mixed. While he was indeed the instigator of a “new era,” his style of governing remained extremely personalized, with an uncritical acceptance of the advice of a small circle of advisers and ministers. By the end of the 1980s, new generations of Omanis appeared who had never known the old period and were thus unlikely to be as grateful or loyal to Qaboos as older citizens.
More immediately, there remained the question of succession, which was addressed by the ruler in the creation of a carefully laid out plan that empowered the ruling family to choose a successor within three days of the position falling vacant. In case senior members failed to settle on an heir, a letter containing a name penned by Sultan Qaboos would be opened in the presence of a defence council of military and security officials, supreme court chiefs, and heads of the two quasi-parliamentary advisory assemblies. That was exactly what happened on 11 January 2020, when the head of the Defense Council opened and read the letter to the full gathering that identified Sayyid Haitham bin Tariq as the preferred candidate, as the latter was sworn in as the Sultanate 15th Al Sa‘id ruler.