A Post Qaboos Oman: What does the leadership transition mean for New Delhi?

Sultan Qaboos Bin Said Al Said of Oman. Source: officeholidays.com

The passing of the iconic Omani Monarch His Majesty Sultan Qaboos Bin Said Al Said (the longest serving leader in the Middle East), at 79 on January 10th, 2020 is a definitive inflection point for the country and its neighbours – Arab and non-Arab alike.

India’s Mundra Port in Gujarat is merely 600 miles away from the Port of Sur separated by the Sea of Oman which has catalysed commerce and human relationships over centuries. Oman is an Arab country at the periphery of the Gulf.

It is a very plural polity of various ethnicities which is hardly captured by the western media, as most commentators have never visited Muscat before filing their stories from the western capitals. 

This article is a ‘Salaam’ to the memory of the late Sultan Qaboos and an attempt to decolonialise writing on Oman from a western gaze and introduce a desi perspective in the discourse. 

The Sultanate of Oman for a primer is a country which stretches from the geo-strategic Straits of Hormuz in Khasab overlooking Bandar Abbas in Iran to Salalah in Dhofar Governorate, on the Yemeni border with Al Mahra on the other side. Here the UAE is jostling for influence with the tribes in the ongoing civil war in Yemen.

The Sultanate punches above its weight class. With due respect to the late Sultan’s wisdom and its ‘under the radar’ deft diplomacy between various actors in a messy Yemen to its south and the Iranians (the nuclear deal negotiations started in Muscat) to the north.

Oman has also helped Qatar[1] bypass the blockade leveraging its port and airport system in lieu of billions in investment in Oman. In a neighbourhood with fragile egos, Oman does well in navigating choppy waters anchored in a neutral foreign policy. 

The entire pantheon of Gulf leaders from the Emir of Qatar to the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi along with Prince Charles of UK have met the new Sultan to pay their respect and establish a personal connect with the new ruler.

An Oxford educated career diplomat His Majesty Haitham bin Tariq bin Taimur Al Said, has successfully signaled continuity of the existing foreign policy in his first address. India has announced a day of mourning to pay respect to the legacy of a renowned regional stalwart. The Indian Prime Minister took to Twitter to congratulate the Sultan Haitham on his swearing in. 

The Indian Foreign Minister Dr. S Jaishankar visited Oman only last month on the 24th December 2019 on his tour of the GCC and he had a meeting with His Excellency Sayyid Fahd, the Deputy Prime Minister- the senior royal. In retrospect though, a higher representation to greet Sultan Haitham would have been better. 

Oman is India’s western neighbour, although it does not seem that way in our limited understanding of political geography which is obsessed with Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The late Sultan Qaboos ruled for nearly half a century and though he was unwell for the past five years due to cancer, and away on medical treatment in Germany and Belgium for prolonged periods. 

Yet, every time he came back home- crowds celebrated by roundinga cultural institution in the social life of the Gulf, where the young and the old alike congregate in car parks and drive around with loud music blaring out of Bose speakers aimlessly to meet friends and grow their friends list on snapchat (a very popular app in the GCC) over Karak Chai and Kahwa with flags wrapped around their cars in this socially conservative part of the world. 

Duaa or Prayers were held for the Sultan, and there was a hope that a man who helmed a country through the ‘Al Nahda’ or the Renaissance in Arabic for 49 years will get better. 

An anglophile who played the organ and had a passion for western classical music (The Royal Opera House in Muscat is a testament to his cosmopolitan and elegant vision), His Majesty Sultan Qaboos was a man ahead of his times. 

He was born in the southern city of Salalah in 1940 and educated in India where the former Indian President Shankar Dayal Sharma[3], taught him in Poona. 

Later he trained to be a military man at Sandhurst, a traditional training ground for Gulf Royals. He served in the British Army as a Captain in Germany before returning to Oman where he was under restricted movement for a few years studying Omani and Islamic Studies. 

He then deposed his father in a bloodless coup in 1970 (with the help of the friendly Brits who were the natural regional power) and set about rebuilding a country stuck in a medieval time wrap where there were only three schools and a few miles of concrete roads. 

He changed the canvas of the country in the five decades he ruled from being an economically deficient country to a middle-income nation of 4.6 million with about 43 percent expatriate population winning an insurgency in Dhofar in the early seventies. 

Apart from Post-Colonial Legend Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, there is none apart from Sultan Qaboos who has such a long reign at the helm of affairs and nurtured the destinies of the nations they shepherded. Their personalities were imprinted in to the vision and practice of everyday governance. 

Seventy percent of its population is concentrated in urban centres in between Masqat and Suhar next to the Dubai Hatta Border, the 200 kilometre stretch of the Al Batinah Coast which is the industrial heart of the country including the refining and retail infrastructure. 

The vital oil fields however are in the sparsely populated Adh Dhahirah, Ad Dhakhilyah and Al Wusta Governorates in Central Oman.Muscat Governorate, the capital region is an urban agglomeration where most offices and higher educational institutions are located. 

The decentralisation of the Omani economy away from Muscat and the petroleum sector is the key to Oman’s future as the young need work in their home towns in Izki, Ibri, Mahut and Buraimi rather than moving to Muscat. 

The late Sultan Qaboos was a larger than life figure while I was growing up in Muscat; his photos were omnipresent (including my drawing room for decades, where my father was a civil servant teaching economics at a vocational technical college in Muscat) and the country operated at a pace which was aligned to its cultural fabric.

It was, in the words of urban studies academic Yasser Elsheshtawy, unlike the ‘Temporary Cities’ of Dubai or Doha, which were in a race to attain a particular strain of Gulf Hyper Modernity with Skyscrapers of Steel and Glass. 

Oman cognizant of its fewer resources, and a culture which is of no hurry- is preparing for a future where oil would not be present, and hence calibrates the present well. 

[1] Nisha Matthew and Manishankar Prasad. ‘The Role of Oman’s Diasporic Business Networks in Circumventing the Qatar Blockade’. Cities and Networks Series 2018. Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore.

Manishankar Prasad

Manishankar Prasad is an environmental engineer, sociologist, researcher and writer. He has studied at the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He has published across numerous national and international platforms such as the New Indian Express and the Huffington Post, been a panellist on Al Jazeera International and BBC World, and has been interviewed by Forbes and The Guardian.

The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.


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