Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said, the Mideast’s longest-ruling monarch who seized power in a 1970 palace coup and pulled his Arabian sultanate into modernity while carefully balancing diplomatic ties between adversaries Iran and the U.S., has died. He was 79.
The state-run Oman News Agency announced his death early Saturday on its official Twitter account. Later Saturday, the Al Watan and Al Roya newspapers reported Qaboos’ successor, his cousin, Haitham bin Tariq al-Said, according to Reuters.
The sultan was believed to have been in poor health and traveled to Belgium for what the court described as a medical checkup last month. The royal court declared three days of mourning.
The news agency mourned the death of the Sultan and praised the “towering renaissance” he had presided over. It said his “balanced policy” of mediating between rival camps in a volatile region had earned the world’s respect.
Reclusive, educated in Britain
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 Mideast interlocutor, helping the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 December 2019 report by the Washington Institute for Near-East Policy described the sultan as suffering from “diabetes and a history of colon cancer.”
Fashionable figure, outsized influence
Sultan Qaboos cut a fashionable figure in a region whose leaders are known for a more austere attire. His colorful turbans stood out, as did his form-fitting robes with a traditional curved khanjar knife stuck inside, the symbol of Oman. He occasionally wore a white turban out of his belief that he spiritually led Oman’s Ibadi Muslims, a more liberal offshoot of Islam predating the Sunni-Shiite split.
The sultan’s willingness to stand apart was key to Oman’s influence in the region. While home only to some 4.6 million people and smaller oil reserves than its neighbors, Oman under Sultan Qaboos routinely influenced the region in ways others couldn’t.
Oman’s oil minister routinely 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.
Iran nuclear deal
The sultan’s greatest diplomatic achievement came as Oman hosted secret talks between Iranian and U.S. 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.
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.