The Enigmatic Sultan Qaboos

Dear Folks,

I am not normally drawn to the incomprehensible and  ephemeral  world of fashion, but I am truly drawn to the goddess of  the glossy pages, Vogue’s Anna Wintour. I find her razor-sharp bob, shrinking frame and her dismissive tone so utterly delightful, perhaps because, as someone who dreams of editing a magazine one day, Wintour’s demeanour speaks volumes about her self-discipline and drive to succeed, which is something I always wish to emulate. I just have to overcome my love  of late morning lie-ins, rich chocolate and an addiction to . Oh well, all in good time I suppose.

Anyway, the Persian Gulf is home to many sheikhdoms, kingdoms and sultanates. One of the most understated and least talked about is the Sultanate of Oman. Unlike the tattered state of Yemen which resembles a bad-tempered toddler, Oman is the well-behaved sibling, of three million, which has surprisingly managed to cultivate good relations, with, well, everybody. The man at the helm is Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said. He has been on the throne since 1970, after he overthrew his father in a coup. At the time Oman truly was a backwater; few people could afford health care and many children were deprived of an education. Qaboos promised the people that he would “transform your life into a prosperous one”–and he did.

According to the International Monetary Fund, in 1970 Oman’s GDP was $256 million, but in 2009, it was $ 53.4 bn. Unlike many of its neighbours, Oman has managed to integrate the population into its economy. In response to the “Arab Spring” uprising, the government plans to expand its programme of “Omanisation” to replace foreign staff in the country. Qaboos has endorsed education programmes which ensure that Oman can reduce its depenence on an expatriate workforce.

Like many leaders in the Middle East and particularly the Gulf, Oman is not a free society and Qaboos sings from the same hymn sheet as many authoritarian rulers do. He has seen to it that where democracy could hurt him, it cannot flourish. He has bestowed upon himself the positions of prime minister, defence minister and finance minister. The UK’s Guardian newspaper cites that no public meetings may take place without government approval; no criticism of the Sultan is tolerated and in Oman, the state decides who has the right to be a journalist.

Yet, despite the grievances of corruption, cronyism and youth unemployment, Oman is regarded fortunate to have Qaboos as a leader. Even journalist Robert Kaplan noted ” I have never encountered a place in the Arab world so well-governed as Oman, and in such a quiet and understated way”. No other ruler could be as fortunate to have Saudi Arabia, the United States, which signed a contract to upgrade the country’s military installations and even,surprisingly, the Islamic Republic of Iran as firm allies. During the Iran-Iraq war and later during the Gulf War, Qaboos maintained solid relations with both the Iranians and the Iraqis.Oman also has a stable relationship with Israel. In 1979, Oman was the only state to recognize Anwar Sadat’s peace agreement with Israel and in 1994, it was the first country in the Gulf Cooperation Council to host Arab-Israeli talks. His foreign affairs minister even attended Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral.

The Sultan is a unique breed. He was educated privately in England and attended the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. He married his cousin, but the marriage was not a match made in heaven and they later divorced. He has no heir apparent and his plans for  succession are a little odd.  Once he dies, the  family have three days to decide on a successor, but if they are not able to reach a conclusion, they must open a letter written by the late Sultan which includes the names of those whom he wishes to see as his heir. But most likely, it will be Assad bin Tariq al-Said, who is the Sultan’s Special Representative.

Sultan Qaboos also enjoys some of life’s finer things. He likes horse riding, tennis, the opera and plays both the organ and the flute. In 1985, he established the Royal Oman Symphony Orchestra. One of the Sultan’s more unusual or unique claims to fame is his creation of one of the world’s most expensive fragrances. His brand Amouage was created in 1983 as a tribute to the Omani tradition of perfumery. The fragrance is composed of dozens of base notes, but none more so than frankincense. Oman is a country that is doused in the smell of this resin which comes from the Boswellia tree and is used to  welcome new guests to one’s home and the Sultan gives a bottle of Amouage to his state visitors.

Apart from his entrepreneurial ventures, most of all Sultan Qaboos has succeeded in rising above the clamour of divisions and tension which exist among Oman’s neighbours. His pursuit of pragmatism and stable relations is what makes the country so unique. He inherited a state heaving under socio-economic complaints; Marxist rebels were fighting a separatist conflict in the south-west of the country, but within five years of taking control, he had turned Oman’s fortunes around. Through the help of foreign forces, he brought the Dhuffar rebellion to an end, and in regards to the economy, he understood early on that the country could not depend solely on the hydrocarbon sector for its future earnings. Qaboos implemented reforms that were vital in empowering the population and for most Omanis, they know of no other leader or kind of leadership, and thus whoever succeeds him will have a tough act to follow.

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