Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said of Oman, who ruled the Middle Eastern nation for 50 years, has died aged 79.
‘With great sorrow and deep sadness… the royal court mourns His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who passed away on Friday,’ the court said in a statement today.
Three days of mourning will now be marked for the reclusive leader, who set the former Arabian Peninsula backwater on a path to modern development.
His death, reportedly from colon cancer, comes amid heightened tensions in the Middle East after Iranian general Qassem Soleimani was killed in a US drone strike at Baghdad airport last week.
The sultan will be succeeded by his cousin and Oman’s culture minister Haitham bin Tariq, who was sworn in as the new leader at the Royal Family Council in Muscat today.
‘Haitham bin Tariq was sworn in as the new sultan of the country… after a meeting of the family which decided to appoint the one who was chosen by the sultan,’ the government confirmed.
Sultan Qaboos, the longest-reigning leader of the modern Arab world, was unmarried and had no children, and left no apparent heir.
According to the Omani constitution, the royal family had three days to determine the successor and if they failed to agree, the person chosen by Qaboos in a letter addressed to the family would be the successor.
Most experts had expected the throne to go to Asad bin Tariq, another cousin, who was appointed deputy prime minister for international relations and cooperation affairs in 2017 in what was seen as a clear message of support.
In his first speech after he was sworn in at the Royal Family Council in Muscat today, Haitham bin Tariq pledged to follow the non-interference foreign policy of the late Sultan Qaboos that made the kingdom an important regional broker.
He also expressed support for ‘our country’s foreign policy of peaceful living among nations and peoples… and not interfering in the internal affairs of others, respecting nations’ sovereignty and international cooperation.’
The death of Sultan Qaboos was announced by the state-run Oman News Agency on its official Twitter account late last night.
The sultan was believed to have been in poor health and had traveled to Belgium for what the court described as a medical checkup last month.
Hundreds of Omanis were seen crowding the Grand Mosque in the capital Muscat as the funeral of Sultan Qaboos took place on Saturday.
His coffin, draped in the red, white and green flag of Oman, was transported into the mosque as citizens gathered to bid farewell to the long-serving leader.
After the ceremony, the late Sultan Qaboos was carried by newly sworn in leader Haitham bin Tariq and General Sultan bin Mohammed al Nomani to his final resting place in the royal family cemetery.
The leader, who seized power in a palace coup in 1970, pulled his Arabian sultanate into modernity while carefully balancing diplomatic ties between Iran and the US.
He reformed a nation that was home to only three schools and harsh laws banning electricity, radios, eyeglasses and even umbrellas when he took the throne.
Under his reign, Oman became known as a welcoming tourist destination and a key Mideast interlocutor, helping the US free captives in Iran and Yemen and even hosting visits by Israeli officials while pushing back on their occupation of land Palestinians want for a future state.
‘We do not have any conflicts and we do not put fuel on the fire when our opinion does not agree with someone,’ Sultan Qaboos told a Kuwaiti newspaper in a rare interview in 2008.
Oman’s longtime willingness to strike its own path frustrated Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, longtime foes of Iran who now dominate the politics of regional Gulf Arab nations.
How Oman will respond to pressures both external and internal in a nation Sultan Qaboos absolutely ruled for decades remains in question.
‘Maintaining this sort of equidistant type of relationship … is going to be put to the test,’ said Gary A. Grappo, a former US ambassador to Oman. ‘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.’
The sultan had been believed to be ill for some time, though authorities never disclosed what malady he faced.
A report released in December by the Washington Institute for Near-East Policy described the sultan as suffering from ‘diabetes and a history of colon cancer.’
Sultan Qaboos spent eight months in a hospital in Germany, returning to Oman in 2015, with the royal court only saying that the treatment he received was successful.
In December 2019, he traveled to Belgium for a week for what the court described as ‘medical checks.’ Days of worry about his condition ended on December 31, with the royal court describing him to be in stable condition.
The sultan’s greatest diplomatic achievement came when Oman hosted secret talks between Iranian and US diplomats that led to the 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers.
The agreement, which limited Iran’s atomic program in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions, has come unraveled since President Donald Trump withdrew from it in May 2018.
Even while mediating negotiations with Tehran, the sultan maintained ties to those in the Pahlavi dynasty that Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution overthrew.
Sultan Qaboos’ outward-looking worldview could not have contrasted more sharply than that of his father, Sultan Said bin Taimur, under whose rule the sultanate more resembled a medieval state.
Slavery was legal, no one could travel abroad and music was banned. At the time, the country, which is nearly the size of Poland, had only 10 kilometers (6.21 miles) of paved roads.
Yet Sultan Said let his son Qaboos, born in Salalah on November 18, 1940, travel to study in England.
Sultan Qaboos’ time abroad included schooling at Britain’s Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and training with the Scottish Rifles Regiment in what was then West Germany.
He returned to Salalah in 1964 but found himself locked away in a palace. Music cassettes sent to him from friends abroad included secret messages from the British.
London was frustrated with Sultan Said, who had grown increasingly eccentric after surviving an assassination attempt and as Communist rebels kept up their offensive in the sultanate’s Dhofar region.
On July 23, 1970, a palace coup ended with Sultan Said shooting himself in the foot before going into exile in London. Qaboos then took power.
‘Yesterday, Oman was in darkness,’ Sultan Qaboos said after the coup. ‘But tomorrow, a new dawn will rise for Oman and its people.’
Sultan Qaboos quickly moved toward modernizing the country, building the schools, hospitals and roads his father didn’t.
With the help of Iranian forces under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the British and Jordan, the sultan beat back the Dhofar rebellion.
‘You can see the sultan’s fingerprints,’ Grappo said. ‘They’re just everywhere.’
Over time, Sultan Qaboos introduced what amounted to a written constitution, created a parliament and granted citizens limited political freedoms. But the sultan always had final say.
In a sign of his strong grip, he also served as prime minister and minister of defense, finance and foreign affairs, as well as governor of the sultanate’s Central Bank.
‘Holding all these positions in government probably sort of constrained his country in the sense of developing senior leadership,’ Grappo said.
That strong grip extended to any sign of dissent. The Royal Oman Police often patrol in riot-ready vehicles with chicken wire covering the windows, something only seen in the island nation of Bahrain which has faced years of low-level unrest.
US diplomats routinely describe the Omani press as ‘muzzled’ and even private outlets self-censor out of fear of running afoul of so-called ‘red lines.’ All public gatherings require government permission.
Small protests broke out as part of the wider Arab Spring unrest in 2011, revealing discontent over corruption, unemployment and rising prices within the sultanate.
Oman was one of the few countries in the Arab world to maintain ties with Egypt after Egyptian President Anwar Sadat signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, and acted as a mediator between Iran and Iraq during their ruinous eight-year war.
It has also long served as a quiet base for US military operations, including a failed 1980 attempt to free hostages held by Iran after the US Embassy takeover in Tehran.
As he grew older, Sultan Qaboos also grew increasingly reclusive. He is known to have had three major passions – reading, music and yachting.
He ‘read voraciously,’ Grappo said, played the organ and lute. He created a symphony orchestra and opened a royal opera house in Muscat in 2011. His yacht ‘Al Said’ is among the world’s largest and was frequently seen anchored in Muscat’s mountain-ringed harbor.
Sultan Qaboos was briefly married to a first cousin. They had no children and divorced in 1979.