Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who modernized Oman and welcomed Israel ties, dies at 79

Omani leader succumbs to illness after nearly 50 years in power; the reclusive ruler hosted Netanyahu in dramatic 2018 Muscat visit and helped broker 2015 Iran nuclear deal

Sultan of Oman Qaboos bin Said sits during a meeting with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the Beit Al Baraka Royal Palace in Muscat, Oman, January 14, 2019. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool Photo via AP)
Sultan of Oman Qaboos bin Said sits during a meeting with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the Beit Al Baraka Royal Palace in Muscat, Oman, January 14, 2019. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool Photo via AP)

Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who ruled Oman for almost half a century, has died at the age of 79, the Omani news agency said Saturday.

During his reign, Qaboos transformed Oman from a backwater into a modern state while pursuing a moderate but active foreign policy, including by building ties with Israel and acting as a mediator for the US in the region.

The state-run Oman News Agency announced his death late Friday on its official Twitter account. The sultan, the longest ruling Arab monarch, was believed to have been in poor health in recent months, and traveled to Belgium for a medical checkup last month.

“With sadness… the Omani Sultanate court mourns… our Sultan Qaboos bin Said… who God chose to be by his side on Friday evening,” the agency said.

According to the agency, the Omani royal court has announced three days of mourning and declared flags be placed at half-staff for the next forty days.

The sultan had ruled Oman since overthrowing his father in a bloodless 1970 coup and pulled his Arabian sultanate into modernity while carefully balancing diplomatic ties between adversaries Iran and the US.

Qaboos bin Said, the Sultan of Oman, pictured in 1979. (AP)

The British-educated, reclusive sultan 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 Middle East interlocutor, helping the US free captives in Iran and Yemen and even hosting visits by Israeli officials while pushing back on their control of lands 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,” Qaboos told a Kuwaiti newspaper in a rare interview in 2008.

The sultan’s death, however, raises the risk of unrest in this country on the eastern edge of the Arabian Peninsula, home to some 4.6 million people. The unmarried Qaboos had no children and did not publicly name an heir, a tradition among the ruling Al Said dynasty whose history is replete with bloody takeovers.

Culture minister Haitham bin Tariq Al Said, a cousin of Qaboos, was named Saturday as Oman’s new ruler.

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. The family opted for the sultan’s own choice.

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 Qaboos absolutely ruled for decades remains in question.

The sultan’s readiness to stand apart was key to Oman’s influence in the region. With a relatively small population and smaller oil reserves than its neighbors, Oman under Qaboos routinely influenced the region in ways others couldn’t.

Oman’s oil minister often criticizes the policies of the Saudi-led OPEC oil cartel with a smile. Muscat hosts meetings of Yemen’s Houthi rebels, locked in a yearslong bloody war with Saudi Arabia. When Americans or dual nationals with Western ties are detained in Iran or areas under Tehran’s influence, communiques that later announce their freedom routinely credit the help of Oman.

The sultan’s greatest diplomatic achievement came as Oman hosted secret talks between Iranian and US diplomats that led to the landmark 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers limiting Iran’s atomic program in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. Yet even then, the sultan maintained ties to those in the Pahlavi dynasty that Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution overthrew.

Despite its relationship with Iran, Oman has long been one of the few Arab states not to shy away from open ties with Israel.

Even though Oman does not have formal diplomatic relations with Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Muscat in October 2018 and met Qaboos there in a dramatic sign of warming ties between the Jewish state and the Sunni Arab world.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) with Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman in the Gulf state on October 26, 2018 (Courtesy)

The prime minister’s visit to Oman marked the first by an Israeli leader in over two decades. The last was in 1996, when Shimon Peres visited.

Netanyahu, who was accompanied by his wife, Sara, was invited to Oman by the sultan.

A joint statement issued by Jerusalem and Muscat following the visit said the two leaders discussed “ways to advance the peace process in the Middle East as well as several matters of joint interest regarding the achievement of peace and stability in the Middle East.”

In 1994, then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin visited Oman, where he was greeted by the sultan. In 1995, a few days after Rabin was assassinated, then-acting prime minister Peres hosted Omani foreign minister Yusuf Ibn Alawi in Jerusalem.

In January 1996, Israel and Oman signed an agreement on the reciprocal opening of trade representative offices. Four months later, Peres visited Oman to officially open “Israel Trade Representation Offices” there.

Headed by a small team of three Israeli diplomats, the office in Muscat functioned “basically like a regular embassy — just without the Israeli flag,” according to an Israel official stationed in the mission.

Then-prime minister Shimon Peres presents a sculpture of the dove of peace to Omani Sultan Qaboos bin Said El Said in the palace in Salala, April 1, 1996. (Avi Ohayun/GPO)

The overt ties with Oman didn’t last for even half a decade. In October 2000, after the Second Intifada broke out, Omani rulers felt public opinion turn against Israel, suspended relations and closed the mission.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry expressed regret at the decision, emphasizing that the cessation of contact and dialogue does nothing to advance the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians.

Qaboos’s 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 Said let his son Qaboos, born in Salalah on November 18, 1940, travel to study in England. Qaboos’s 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.

Qaboos 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 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.

Then-Sultan of Oman Said Bin Taimur arrives at London Airport, June 4, 1960. (AP)

A July 23, 1970 palace coup ended up with Said shooting himself in the foot before going into exile in London. Qaboos took power.

“Yesterday, Oman was in darkness,” Qaboos said after the coup. “But tomorrow, a new dawn will rise for Oman and its people.”

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,” said Gary A. Grappo, a former US ambassador to Oman. “They’re just everywhere.”

Over time, 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.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with Sultan Qaboos in Muscat, Oman, January 14, 2019. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool Photo via AP)

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, 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.

Qaboos was briefly married to a first cousin. They had no children and divorced in 1979.

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