The Middle East’s longest-serving leader, Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman, has died.
The widely respected although authoritarian monarch then ruled the small Gulf nation for almost 50 years, leading his country into modernity and developing a reputation for nimble independence among the heavyweight powers in the region.
Aged 79, Qaboos had no children and did not publicly name a successor, but state TV reported the culture minister Haitham bin Tariq Al Said – a cousin of Qaboos – had been chosen as the new sultan.
Qaboos reportedly had left a letter suggesting who could take over to be read after he died, should Oman’s ruling authorities be unable to agree on a successor.
The ruler has long had close links with Britain, where he studied at the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst.Upon his return to Oman, the UK quietly helped Qaboos overthrow his father and then trained up the country’s armed forces so they could finally put down an armed communist insurgency in the Dhofar region.
A statement from Boris Johnson said the prime minister was deeply saddened by the sultan’s death.
“He was an exceptionally wise and respected leader who will be missed enormously. He will be remembered for his devotion to the development of Oman into a stable and prosperous nation, and as the father of the nation who sought to improve the lives of the Omani people.
“He leaves a profound legacy, not only in Oman but across the region too.”
The foreign secretary Dominic Raab also tweeted: “Saddened to hear of the death of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said. He was widely respected and worked hard to promote peace and stability in Oman and the wider region.’’
Upon taking the throne in 1970, Qaboos ruled over what was then an almost entirely undeveloped desert nation.
His father had become increasingly erratic and despised modernity, leaving Oman with only 10km (6 miles) of paved roads and three schools. Slavery was legal and music, glasses, electricity and even umbrellas were banned.
But Qaboos enacted a speedy programme of modernisation, spending the country’s oil wealth on roads, schools, airports and hospitals and began building relationships with neighbours.
He was able to stay on friendly terms with warring rivals, including Iran’s Islamic regime and the Shah they overthrew, and Oman often acted as an impartial intermediary during middle eastern conflicts.
As well as hosting negotiations which freed western hostages held in Iran and Yemen, Qaboos also welcomed Israeli officials without sabotaging their relationships with the Palestinian movement.
“We do not have any conflicts and we do not put fuel on the fire when our opinion does not agree with someone,” he told a Kuwaiti newspaper in a rare interview in 2008.
The nuclear deal between Iran and western powers, which is on the brink of collapse, was also the fruit of secret talks between Iranian and US officials in Oman.
However, while Qaboos was widely loved by Omanis, he concentrated power in himself and rarely brooked dissent. When he died he was simultaneously holding the roles of prime minister, finance minister, defence minister and foreign affairs minister.
While he did create a written constitution and held elections for an advisory council, there is little freedom of the press while anti-government activists are harassed.
When protests did erupt in 2011 during the Arab Spring, he sacked a third of his cabinet, created thousands of public sector jobs and initiated payments for the unemployed.
Commentators said Oman would struggle to replace the dynamic and all-powerful sultan. “Sultan Qaboos had such charismatic authority and became so synonymous with Oman as a modern nation-state that it will naturally be difficult for any successor to replicate that, at least at the beginning,” said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a Middle East expert at the Baker Institute think tank.
Gary Grappo, a former US ambassador to Oman, said: “Whoever that person is, is going to have an immensely, immensely difficult job. And overhanging all of that will be the sense that he’s not Qaboos because those are impossible shoes to fill.” Source: independent