Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan with Sultan Qaboos Bin Saeed Image Credit: Supplied

Universally praised for introducing significant socio-economic reforms in the Sultanate of Oman, Sultan Qaboos Bin Saeed stands out as a dedicated leader with a sharp focus: how to create opportunities to improve the educational and health care levels of Omanis in a secure environment.

While much has been written about many of the Omani ruler's accomplishments in the past 40 years, ranging from building a modernising state to functioning infrastructures where none existed in 1970, little has been said about the man whose vision facilitated these opportunities.

In summary form, it may be accurate to conclude that Sultan Qaboos served Oman as few men have in the Sultanate's long and distinguished history, which speaks to his foresight and impeccable credentials.

Sandhurst and rulership

Sultan Qaboos spent his early life studying in Salalah, where he was born, and graduated from the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst in 1962. He then served in a British regiment in West Germany, studied local government in the British Midlands and embarked on a world tour before returning to the Dhuffar in 1964. In Salalah, he later confided to Majid Khadduri he "began to reflect on [his] present condition and contemplated on what might happen to the country in consequence to [his] father's" policies.

Distraught by the way Sultan Saeed Bin Taimour failed to empower his son to serve crown and country, the young Sultan Qaboos devoted a great deal of time to studying Ibadhi religious and legal texts but soon found himself with "nothing to do but recline on the sofa and meditate". It was not long before he instigated a palace coup against his father with the assistance of his uncle and future father-in-law Tarek Bin Taimour. The coup d'état of July 23, 1970, succeeded because the Omani army's chief intelligence officer in the Dhuffar, brigadier John Graham, and Colonel Hugh Oldman, military (later defence) secretary and supreme commander of the army in Muscat, insisted that Saeed surrender. London concluded that the fate of the Oman monarchy — a clear strategic asset for Britain — was at stake. In fact, Sultan Saeed had stood against fundamental changes, even if the time was ripe to entrust the throne to a modernising figure such as Sultan Qaboos, who sought to repair some of the perceived socio-political harm his father's policies had exacted on the country. The Omani population extended a warm welcome when the young monarch first set foot in his own capital city on July 30, 1970.

Sultan Qaboos realised that his popularity was the result of his openness and not necessarily due to an ingrained adulation among a population that barely knew him, and that he needed to rapidly prove himself in the eyes of his subjects. Rather than shy away from his father's legacy, he distanced himself publicly from Sultan Saeed Bin Taimour, changed the name of the country to the Sultanate of Oman [from Muscat and Oman that illustrated divisions throughout the land], adopted a new flag and devoted a great deal of attention to the Dhuffar War. He realised that the need for a vision was essential, for without one — shared with the majority of Omanis — it would be impossible to forge national unity.

Proclaiming his intentions to modernise the country and abolish unnecessary governmental restrictions imposed by his father, Sultan Qaboos quickly established several ministries, assigned portfolios to prominent individuals and devised a national strategy. The Sultan retained for himself the key posts of internal security, defence, finance and oil affairs.

Democratising institutions

Despite many changes, Oman lacked a written constitution and nor were any political parties allowed. Sultan Qaboos believed that an effective parliamentary system could only thrive when Omanis matured politically to exercise their freedom of speech freely but responsibly. In the ruler's own words, "a parliament whose members we will choose can be created; we can create a phoney parliament to give the impression of a semblance of democracy in our country. All this is possible but does it correspond to the aim for which a parliament is supposed to exist? We need more time to reach this stage," he said in 1972.

There was more than an element of truth in this statement, given Oman's high illiteracy levels (65 per cent to 70 per cent) at the time. By the late 1980s, however, social developments and rapid modernisation increased the demand for legislation dealing with issues such as labour regulations, banking, investment and exploration of natural resources, among others. As econ-omic activity picked up in the Sultanate, the burdensome task of drafting legislation by decree took its toll on the ruler and his Council of Ministers. Inasmuch as the arbitrary decision-making process created some resentment among merchants and members of the small intelligentsia, Muscat opted for added participatory steps, in part to alleviate some of the political burdens that overwhelmed it.

In time, the Majlis Al Istishari Lil Dawlah (State Consultative Council) was created, which became a full-fledged Majlis Al Shurah (Consultative Council) in December 1991. Unprecedented in scope and substance, Sultan Qaboos called on Omanis to assume nation-building burdens, which was akin to adopting a concordance that gradually moved the country forward on the road to political participation. Over the years, the Majlis underwent emendations, with secret ballots for both men and women now the norm to elect representatives.

Inasmuch as the universal suffrage enterprise was unique in the Gulf region, Sultan Qaboos's initiatives were not short of revolutionary. As a case in point, when the Ruler further decreed that women could run for office, candidates came forward to compete in what remained a largely paternalistic environment. While progress on this front was relatively slow, it may be worth noting that this was an unprecedented move for the whole Arabian peninsula, including Kuwait, the most politically emancipated country in the area. Undoubtedly, the active participation of women in responsible positions illustrated the Sultan's wish to see working women gaining in trust and respect among the population at large, which became a reality under his rulership.

Basic Law of government

In November 1996, Sultan Qaboos announced his intention to introduce a "Basic Law" that promised to revolutionise the evolving concordance even further as it set a significant precedent for the entire region. This written "constitution" provided a Bill of Rights, guaranteed the freedom of press, encouraged religious tolerance, insisted on race and gender equality and appointed an independent judiciary — emulating a Supreme Court scheme — that would interpret the Basic Law and act as its guardian. This unprecedented initiative augured well for Oman. Over time, the sultan, or perhaps his successor, would emerge as the first constitutional monarch on the Arabian peninsula, which would be yet another positive innovation.

Dhuffar Civil War

None of the positive developments the nascent sultanate enjoyed would have been made possible had the civil war continued, and it was to Sultan Qaboos's credit to address this thorny question with gusto.

Regrettably, because Muscat's modest oil revenues were not devoted to sorely needed development requirements after 1964, tensions in the Dhuffar meant that the country's entanglement in the south drained its meagre resources and that Sultan Saeed Bin Taimour was not capable of defeating the rebels who challenged his authority. The British were also concerned about the old sultan's arch-conservatism and intransigence in opening up the Sultanate to outside investments. Nevertheless, it fell on the young Sultan Qaboos to address the problems of his government and tackle the Dhuffar rebellion without reservations. Determined to bring this festering problem to an end, he vowed to settle the conflict at any cost, even with British assistance, if need be. This determination meant that Sultan Qaboos would not shy away from difficult tasks even when he lacked the experience or was somewhat isolated in his own country. What it also demonstrated was the young ruler's ingrained confidence to face challenges, introduce effective responses and, above all, earn the trust of his subjects as he invited every able-bodied man and woman to assume their fair share of responsibilities.

By December 1975, with British, Iranian and Jordanian military assistance, the Dhuffar mountains were systematically cleared of guerrilla activity and the rebellion effectively brought to an end. Muscat then concentrated on providing government jobs, digging wells, building sorely needed schools and health clinics where none existed, which earned the Sultan the full loyalty of his people. Over the years, the Dhuffar was carefully and probably irreversibly integrated into the rest of the Sultanate, with several Dhuffaris recruited to serve as senior government officials. To be sure, time relegated this chapter in contemporary Omani affairs to history books, though it was worth recalling how critical its felicitous resolution role was, to better focus the country's limited resources to nation-building.

Foreign policy initiatives

Sultan Qaboos further realised that Oman's internal needs could not be satisfactorily met while the country remained isolated and, towards that end, embarked on massive diplomatic programmes that solved pending border disputes, which genuinely secured the Sultanate. His moderate course in foreign policy, starting with a long-standing relationship with Britain and the United States, meant that he could rely on London and Washington. In fact, while the bulk of Omani military equipment originated in the United Kingdom, Muscat signed a critical-facilities-access agreement with the US in 1980, which was renewed on several occasions and which upgraded Omani military installations and allowed the US to pre-stock valuable military equipment used during the 1991 United Nations-led coalition war for Kuwait.

Within the Arab world, Sultan Qaboos forged a policy of strengthening relations with nearby Arab countries, which had been virtually non-existent before 1970, although Omani influence on the Arabian peninsula may be traced to the times of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH). The rapprochement with king Faisal Bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud in Riyadh in 1971, perhaps one of Sultan Qaboos's finest foreign policy initiatives, not only ended the traditional enmity between Oman and Saudi Arabia, it also brought the two countries much closer than many assumed. King Faisal respected Sultan Qaboos and perceived him as a genuine leader with foresight and innate capabilities. Towards that end, Riyadh paid attention to what Oman proposed in terms of regional security and, in 1981, stood by Muscat when the latter focused on Gulf security as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was established. It was the Omani experience in the Dhuffar civil war and its physical responsibilities to secure the maritime passageways through the strategic Straits of Hormuz that persuaded the GCC rulers to accept Sultan Qaboos's military judgments on forging close cooperation with major Western powers on security matters. Even if the more recent GCC economic cooperation failed to materialise, regional security remained paramount, which necessitated utmost attention to regional powers anxious to acts as hegemons.

Developing legacy

Speaking to young officers at a Sandhurst passing-out parade, Sultan Qaboos recalled his own military training and declared: "The values I absorbed have remained with me for ever afterwards. … I learnt that discipline is not just something one imposes on others, it is something that one has to, above all, apply to oneself, if one is to be a worthy leader of men. I also learnt the true meaning of service, that is, to give and not to expect to receive, and that it is the team, and not oneself, that matters. I learnt that with responsibility comes obligation."

Like his famous ancestor Imam Ahmad, the founder of the Al Bu Saidi dynasty, an outstanding leader who had ended a turbulent era of civil wars and brought peace and stability to Oman, Sultan Qaboos's 40 years on the Omani throne are distinguished. For four decades, Muscat lived through dramatic transformations that ended conflicts, introduced a stable environment and empowered society to eliminate poverty by creating the opportunities that allowed ordinary men and women to aspire to greatness. This was Sultan Qaboos's legacy, which is continuing, a bequest that was worthy of Ahmad Bin Saeed and sultans who served Oman well.


An avid sportsman with a passion for music

Sultan Qaboos Bin Saeed was born in Salalah on November 18, 1940, the son of sultan Saeed Bin Taimour Al Said and Miyzun Bint Ahmad Al Maashani. He was the only son of the late sultan Said and the eighth direct descendant of the Al Bu Saidi line founded in 1744 by Imam Ahmad Bin Saeed. Tutored in traditional Islamic subjects in the Dhuffar, Sultan Qaboos was sent to a private school in England when he reached 16 and, in 1960, entered the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst as an officer cadet. After passing out of Sandhurst, he served for seven months with a British infantry battalion on duty in Germany and held a staff appointment with the British army. Sultan Qaboos studied local government in the English Midlands for a period of time and embarked on a tour of the world from 1963 to 1964, which took him to a variety of countries.

He returned to Salalah in 1964, where his father kept him inactive for a full six years. Still, these years proved educational, as the future leader studied Omani history. Prodded by British officers, Saeed Said abdicated on July 23, 1970, and Sultan Qaboos acceded to the throne. He arrived in Muscat a few days later — seeing his own capital for the first time — to begin the task of rebuilding Oman. On August 9, 1970, he 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. In March 1976, Sultan Qaboos married Nawwal Bint Tarek Al Said, his cousin, but the marriage did not last. A formal divorce followed.

An avid sportsman, Sultan Qaboos has been an enthusiastic horseman since childhood and enjoys several outdoor pursuits, including walking and tennis. A distinguished military officer with hands-on training, the Omani leader is an adept marksman. A man of many interests, from literature and history to religion and languages, Sultan Qaboos has a passion for music, which led him to establish the Royal Oman Symphony Orchestra in 1985. A full-fledged opera house is nearly completed in Muscat, which stands as an example of his outlook to marry enthusiasm with quality of life.

- Dr Joseph A. Kéchichian is an author, most recently of Faysal: Saudi Arabia's King for All Seasons (2008).