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Fifth column

January 19, 2020

Sultan Qaboos

Opinion

January 19, 2020

Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said ruled the Sultanate of Oman for nearly fifty years, making him the longest-serving leader in the Arab world at the time of his death. During his rule, he transformed his country to a high-income economy with very good infrastructure aided with dedicated development programmes that changed and improved the quality of life of the Omanis beyond recognition. Sultan’s policy of modernisation involved massive spending on education, health and welfare increasing life expectancy from 50 to 77 years. This was in contrast to his father, Said bin Taimur, whom he deposed at the age of 29 to take over.

Sultan Taimur was a peculiar traditionalist who saw modernity as a danger; he banned listening to the radio and even curtailed education. He would often decide on social issues like who could get married or leave the country for whatever business.

In 1970, when Sultan Qaboos took over, Oman was dreadfully poor with almost no contemporary amnesties. There were no higher education institutions, hardly any formal healthcare facilities and just three public schools that had fewer than 1000 students. Besides, the whole country could boast only six kilometres of paved roads. His vision transformed the country into a model of development with top quality education and healthcare facilities and an impressive network of roads that connects the deserts to the pristine coastlines.

Despite having access to fewer resources than most of its neighbours, a UNDP report in 2010 acknowledged Oman’s development trajectory and ranked it as the most improved nation in the world in terms of development during the preceding 40 years. It is a befitting testimony to Sultan Qaboos’ progressive foresight and dedication for his people that at the time of his departure over 95 percent of the adult population of Oman is now educated. The Omani society has grown to value formal education as there is now “increasing expectation of higher education as both a right and a status symbol”. As a result, there are always demands to establish more higher education institutes.

Although he was an absolute monarch, Sultan Qaboos introduced robust political structures that created a vibrant political climate in support of the citizenry. He gave them a national constitution and a two-tier parliament consisting of an appointed upper house and a lower house where representatives were elected. Besides, the Sultan took an extraordinary interest in public affairs and remained connected with his people through frequent tours to meet with the public and respond to their needs and demands. He also advocated gender equality and appointed many women to powerful positions while supporting their greater role in the nation-building and share in the employment.

Sultan Qaboos’ political leadership and acumen came to the fore during the Arab Spring when mass demonstrations hit several Arab countries including Oman. He responded to the public protests with sympathy and, despite some violence by the public, the state response was quite circumspect. In Sohar, the excessive police action was admitted by forcing the police chief to retire. Compared to the neighbours, Oman weathered the Spring largely unscathed as the Sultan inaugurated several reforms including large-scale job creation, actions against corruption, increasing salaries and pension pay-outs, and taming the commodity prices.

Before Sultan Qaboos’ reign, there was a lot of social and political discord produced by years of a violent struggle between competing power centres, and sectarian or geographical differences that had become salient over the time. He managed to skilfully bridge these differences and bring together various tribes that belonged to different persuasions of Islam.

This has certainly created a lot of positive atmosphere among these groups who not only live in harmony but also engage in marriages creating new dynamics of mutual relationships. This is an amazing achievement given that in the immediate neighbourhood many conflicts are incubated and ossified due to these ideologically driven sectarian differences that have resulted in thousands of deaths and eviction of millions of people in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and beyond. Oman has been a pioneer in introducing tolerance towards other religions as well – with Jews, Christians, Hindus and Sikhs made to feel welcome and with the construction of churches, temples, and gurdwaras in Muscat.

With his vision and wisdom, Sultan Qaboos pursued a pragmatist foreign policy that engaged neighbours and regional and international powers with deference and little controversy. Despite Oman being a small country, his tact and diplomacy allowed the country to gain prestige without attracting censure in a region that is rife with controversies based upon personal egos of the elite or narrow self-interest. The late Sultan’s role in bringing Iran and the US together that led to the nuclear deal clearly showed his skilful diplomacy that increased the sultanate’s profile at the international stage. It is no wonder that his death was mourned equally by rival countries – from Qatar to Saudi Arabia and Israel to Iran.

Sultan Haitham, the new ruler, has pledged to continue his predecessor’s policies of friendly relations with all nations while pledging to further develop his country. His experience as the head of Oman’s Vision 2040 would be of great advantage to future development and might bring renewed impetus to new initiatives of progress.

Vision 2040 entails bringing economic reform and introducing new social planning to reconcile development and lessen reliance on oil and gas exports. Besides, the new sultan has served as minister of culture and heritage as well as working in top posts in the foreign ministry. His vast experience puts him in a unique position to catalyse economic reform, increase tourism that could also help in the diversification of revenue generation and also pursue a foreign policy of cooperation and rapprochement to sustain and further Oman’s prestige and position.

Twitter: @murtaza_shibli