Remembering the true genius of Sultan Qaboos of Oman

By Claude Salhani

Sultan Qaboos bin Tymoor, the charismatic ruler of The Sultanate of Oman died earlier this month, reported a statement from the Omani government in Muscat. Qaboos was 79, and leaves no children, therefor no direct heir.  He is succeeded by his cousin, Haitham bin Tariq al-Said, whom according to sources in the sultanate, the choice of succession was Qaboos’ who had left instructions in as letter he wrote shortly before his death.

Qaboos was the longest serving Arab leader, having governed Oman as this country’s head of state for 50 years.

The history of Oman is closely tied to Qaboos who took power from his ageing father in 1970, in a bloodless palace coup worked out in close cooperation with the British military.

As a young man Qaboos was sent to school in England, after graduation attended the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, Britain’s equivalent to the American West Point.

Qaboos’ father, the old sultan ruled the country in what may well resemble tales coming straight out of the Grimm brothers. Except this was taking place in 1970 in the Middle East and not in some imaginary Mittle Europa country in the 1800s.

Oman was no fairytale. It was more of  a nightmare trailing centuries behind the rest of the region.  The old ruler was terribly  paranoid and banned all forms of modernization, including prohibiting the use of eyeglasses and forbidding  women from education. A  country half the size of France had only a few kilometers of paved roads, it had a single hospital serving the entire country and the gates to the capital, Muscat were shut between sunset and sunrise. Security forces were under orders to shoot anyone walking inside the capital after dark and not carrying a lantern up to his face.

At the same time Oman was caught in a civil war with the southern population in the Dhofar region. The rebels had legitimate concerns and demands, such as roads, hospitals and schools. The rebels were supported by South Yemen, also known as the Popular Democratic Republic of Yemen, or PDRY for short.

As the only communist country in the Arab world South Yemen also had support from China and the Soviet Union. The sultan had help from the British, the old colonial masters; Iran, at that time still under the rule of the shah, and others. And here were soldiers from Pakistan, Jordan. The UK and others.

Under Qaboos and the newly discovered oil fields money was beginning to flow into the country. Qaboos wasted no time as he began to build roads, hospitals, and schools and lifted the ban  on women in education.

With revenues from the oil pouring in he managed to meet the demands which the rebels were fighting for and demonstrated that they had no legitimate reason to continue the fight.

He introduced a program where surrendering rebels were offered complete amnesty and financial rewards for bringing in whatever caliber guns they had. For example a rebel surrendering with an AK-47 would receive $ 350, handing in an RPG was worth $500, and so on. The larger the caliber the greater the financial reward.

But the stroke of genius was what the sultan did next. He was well aware that as long as the army moved into areas cleared of rebels there would remain tension between the army composed northerners and the people of the south. Instead of having the army deployed throughout the Dhofar Qaboos created  a local militia called the “firqats”. In Arabic it translates as groups.

When the firqats caught a rebel there were good chances that at least one of the militiamen had been in the same unit as the rebel, or yet one of the former rebels hailed from the same village. Qaboos invited many of the surrendering rebels to join the firqats and police the area themselves. The program was very successful and remains to this day the only peacefully settled rebellions in the Middle East.

Qaboos managed throughout the 50 years he ruled Oman not to fall blindly in line with the rest of the Gulf Corporation Council on every issue the GCC addressed.

 He managed somehow to maintain good relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran.

He was among as the first Arab countries to established established diplomatic relations with Israel and among the first  to open a trade bureau in Tel Aviv.   He did not hesitate to criticize Saudi Arabia when he disagreed with the Saudis on policies such as Iran, Qatar and Yemen.

He was a figure of stability in a turbulent part of the world. He shall be missed. 

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