Sultan Qaboos ushered in Oman renaissance, quiet diplomacy

Sultan Qaboos bin Said
Short Url
Updated 12 January 2020

Sultan Qaboos ushered in Oman renaissance, quiet diplomacy

  • Qaboos healed old rifts in a country long divided between a conservative tribal interior and seafaring coastal region

DUBAI: Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who died late on Friday, transformed Oman during his 49-year reign from a poverty-stricken country torn by dissent into a prosperous state and an internationally trusted mediator for some of the region’s thorniest issues.
He became sultan in July 1970 in a palace coup with the aim of ending the country’s isolation and using its oil revenue for modernization and development.
Qaboos, 79, never publicly named a successor but secretly recorded his choice in a sealed letter should the royal family disagree on the succession line. “I have already written down two names, in descending order, and put them in sealed envelopes in two different regions,” he said in a 1997 interview.

His successor
State television said his cousin Haitham bin Tariq Al-Said was named sultan on Saturday after the high military council called on the ruling family council to choose a successor. The family had followed Qaboos’ written recommendation, believing in “his wisdom and vision,” a military council statement said.
State media did not disclose the cause of death. Qaboos, who has dominated decision making in the Gulf state for decades, had been ailing for years and was in Belgium in December for treatment.
“The immediate danger, perhaps, is that regional players may try to influence the outcome of succession or the chosen new leader,” said Simon Henderson, director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“Iran will likely be opportunistic in how it plays its cards.”
Analysts worry about royal family discord, and a resurgence of tribal rivalries and political instability, now a new ruler was chosen at a time when young leaders have assumed power in neighboring Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Qaboos healed old rifts in a country long divided between a conservative tribal interior and seafaring coastal region. He became known to his countrymen as “the renaissance,” investing billions of dollars of oil revenues in infrastructure and building one of the best-trained armed forces in the region.
While brooking no dissent at home, Qaboos charted an independent foreign policy, not taking sides in a Gulf rivalry.
Muscat kept ties with both Tehran and Baghdad during the 1980–88 Iran–Iraq War, and with Iran and the US after their diplomatic falling out in 1979.
Oman helped to mediate secret US-Iran talks in 2013 that led to a historic international nuclear pact two years later.

SPEEDREAD

• Sultan Qaboos healed old rifts in a country long divided between a conservative tribal interior and seafaring coastal region.

• Qaboos, 79, never publicly named a successor but recorded his choice in a sealed letter.

The white-bearded Qaboos met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in October 2018 on a rare visit to Oman. While other Gulf states have made overtures to Israel, none of their leaders have openly met with Netanyahu.

Al-Said dynasty
Qaboos, the eighth ruler of the Al-Said dynasty that governed Oman since 1744, was born on Nov. 18, 1940 in Dhofar.
In 1958, he headed to England to complete his education, strengthening historic ties between Britain and the Omani royal family. He studied for two years at the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst and served six months in the British army in West Germany, returning to England in 1962 to study local government.
When oil exports began in 1967, Sultan Said, accustomed to tight financial constraints, was reluctant to spend on development.
Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution directed Qaboos’ attention to the Strait of Hormuz, through which almost a fifth of global oil passes. He pledged to keep the strait open and in 1980 signed a deal to let US forces use Omani facilities for emergencies. In 1981, Qaboos began widening political participation and free elections for an advisory council were held in 2003.

Charismatic authority
When the “Arab Spring” protests started to threaten — and eventually topple — the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt in 2011, Qaboos took note and defused his own potential bombshell as protests broke out in Oman with promises of jobs and reforms.
He sacked more than a third of the Cabinet, created thousands of public sector jobs and paid a dividend to the unemployed, which the IMF said amounted to a quarter of Omanis.
However domestic challenges remain with high unemployment and the state increasingly relying on external borrowing as oil prices fell, pushing its credit rating to junk status.
“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,” Kristian Coates Ulrichsen of the Texas-based Rice University’s Baker Institute told Reuters.


Lebanon family restless as it awaits missing ‘heroes’

Updated 11 August 2020

Lebanon family restless as it awaits missing ‘heroes’

  • Najib Hitti, 27, Charbel Hitti, 22 and Charbel Karam, 37, all relatives, left together in one firetruck to douse a port blaze believed to have sparked the August 4 mega-blast
  • The Hittis’ hopes of seeing their loved ones alive have dimmed since the army on Sunday said it had concluded search and rescue operations with little to no hope of finding survivors

QARTABA, Lebanon: Three firefighters. One Lebanese family. The same restless wait. Rita Hitti has not slept a wink since the Beirut port blast, when her firefighting son, nephew and son-in-law went missing.
“In one piece or several, we want our sons back,” she told AFP from the Hitti family’s home in the mountain town of Qartaba, north of Beirut.
“We have been waiting for the remains for six days,” she added, dark circles under her eyes.
Najib Hitti, 27, Charbel Hitti, 22 and Charbel Karam, 37, all relatives, left together in one firetruck to douse a port blaze believed to have sparked the August 4 mega-blast that killed 160 people and wounded at least 6,000 others across town.
They were among the first rescuers at the scene. They have not been heard of since.
Near the entrance to their Qartaba home, the three men are praised as “heroes” in a huge banner unfurled over a wall.
The double exposure shot shows them in the foreground dressed sharply in suits.
In the background, the blast’s now-infamous pink plume rises above their heads as they try to douse a fire.
An eerie calm filled the stone-arched living room, where dozens of relatives and neighbors gathered around Rita, the mother of Najib Hitti.
The women were mum, the men whispered between themselves, the young shuffled in and out of the room, quietly.
Karlen, Rita’s daughter, looked among the most sombre, with her husband Charbel Karam, brother Najib and cousin Charbel all missing.
Sitting next to her mother on the couch, she fought back tears and did not say a single word.
The Hittis’ hopes of seeing their loved ones alive have dimmed since the army on Sunday said it had concluded search and rescue operations with little to no hope of finding survivors.
The health ministry has said the number of missing stands at less than 20, while the army announced it had lifted five corpses from beneath the rubble.
A large blaze was still ripping through the blast site when the Hittis and other relatives of port employees dashed to the disaster zone to check on their loved ones.
But they were stopped by security forces.
“I told them I would know my boys from their smell,” Rita said she told an officer who barred her from the site.
“Let me enter to search for them and when I whiff their smell I will know where they are,” the mother said she pleaded.
Ever since, her hopes have gradually dwindled, but her anger is boiling.
Lebanese authorities have pledged a swift investigation but the exact cause of the blast remains unclear.
Authorities say it was triggered by a fire of unknown origin that broke out in a port warehouse where a huge pile of highly volatile ammonium nitrate fertilizer had been left unsecured for years.
Whatever the cause of the fire was, the popular consensus is that the blame rests squarely on the shoulders of officials in charge of the port as well those who have ruled Lebanon country for decades.
“We gave them heroes and they returned them to us as ‘martyrs’,” Rita said, scoffing at the label officials have used to brand blast casualties.
“What martyrs? What were they protecting? The noxious things (authorities) were hiding in the port?” she asked rhetorically.
“They are martyrs of treachery.”
George, father of Charbel Hitti, also rushed to the blast site to look for his son and relatives after the explosion.
“I started to scream their names: Najib, Charbel... I was like a mad man,” he told AFP.
“We waited until 6 in the morning the next day for clues to what happened,” he said.
“In the end, I started crying.”
He did manage, however, to get one piece of information from a port security official close to the family who was at the scene of the blaze when the firefighting team first arrived on August 4.
The security official had told him that the firefighters were trying to break open the door to the ammonium nitrate warehouse because they could not find the keys before the explosion ripped the whole place apart.
A week has since passed and George said hopes of finding the three men alive have faded.
Assuming they are dead, George said he now wants one thing: “We just want DNA test results that are compatible with those of Charbel, Najib and Charbel,” he said.
“Imagine. This is everything we now wish for.”