Qaboos ibn Sa'id (born 1940), ruler of Arabia's strategically important Sultanate of Oman, defeated a Communist-inspired insurgency and guided an extensive socio-economic modernization of his once backward realm.
Qaboos ibn Sa'id headed Arabia's oldest reigning dynasty, the Al Bu Sa'id, rulers of Oman since 1744. Born on November 18, 1940, in Salalah, capital of Oman's southern province of Dhofar, he was the only son of Sultan Sa'id ibn Taymur, who died in 1972. His mother was daughter of a shaykh (sheik) of the Bayt Mu'ashani clan of Dhofar's dominant Qara tribe.
Until the mid-19th century Oman was a leading maritime state in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Gulf region. Then disaster overtook the country, and by the early 20th century its increasingly impotent rulers were dependent upon British support; its economy was stagnant and its society was disintegrating as many emigrated to more prosperous lands.
This decline was reversed only after Sultan Qaboos' father became ruler in 1932. By 1960, Sultan Sa'id had reasserted his dynasty's prestige and his personal absolutism by recovering his independence from British tutelage and establishing effective sovereignty over all Oman. Oil was discovered in the interior in 1964, but when Sa'id decided to restrict the kind of petroleum-driven modernization that was transforming the rest of eastern Arabia he provoked opposition that later brought his downfall. A rebellion, eventually taken over by Communist leadership, swept Dhofar and, ultimately, conservative supporters of Al Bu Sa'id rule decided to oust Sultan Sa'id in order to save the dynasty. On July 23, 1970, a bloodless coup seated 29-year-old Qaboos ibn Sa'id on Oman's throne.
Little known when he became sultan, Qaboos had had few contacts with his countrymen during his childhood in Salalah. Sent to England in 1958, he spent two years in Suffolk preparing for Sandhurst, Britain's military academy, from which he graduated in 1962. A short stint with the British army in Germany was followed by several months studying local government with the Bedfordshire County Council and, finally, a world tour. But after Qaboos' return to Oman in 1964 his suspicious father denied the prince a responsible post and kept him confined studying Islamic law. Resenting his enforced isolation and fearing Oman's ominous drift, Qaboos regretfully joined the movement to oust his father after it received Britain's encouragement.
During the first seven years of Qaboos' reign he consolidated his personal ascendancy over Oman's political system, led his country irrevocably into socio-economic modernization, and regained control of Dhofar province. By the early 1970s this erstwhile guerrilla action had escalated into full-scale war. South Yemen and various Communist and radical Arab states aided the insurgents, while British, Jordanian, and Iranian troops helped the sultan, who diverted most of his oil revenues to military purposes and increased his army to 15, 000 troops. Although minor skirmishing occurred as late as 1978, the war was virtually over when the sultan proclaimed victory in December 1975. Nevertheless, military expansion remained a high priority. By 1985 Oman's military mustered 24, 000 well equipped troops, including air and naval units, plus 9, 000 police and internal security units. In 1980 a cooperative Omani-American defense relationship was initiated. The United States financed modernization of Omani military bases and enjoyed access to them in emergencies.
Sultan Qaboos' prestige soared after he won the Dhofar war. During the first year of his reign he shared power with his urbane, strong-willed uncle, Tariq ibn Taymur, but this ended when it appeared Tariq was becoming too powerful. The two were later reconciled, and Tariq's influence at the palace was emphasized in March 1976 when his daughter, Kamila, then 14, married Qaboos.
The Sultan's absolutism was always tempered by the influence of an oligarchy of advisers drawn from the ruling family, Omani businessmen, and influential British, American, and Arab experts. In 1981 the sultan appointed a State Consultative Council, a possible step toward democratization. Abandoning the isolationism of his father, he vigorously pursued an independent but staunchly pro-Western foreign policy. In a relatively short time, Qaboos brought about unprecedented prosperity to his country, and made Oman a leader among Arab nations. He sought the diverse aid from neighboring countries and the West necessary to tap Oman's natural resources and to improve his country's standard of living.
While post-1970 Oman witnessed fundamental socioeconomic change, the sultan tried zealously to preserve both the outward forms and the inner values of Oman's distinctive culture rooted in its Ibadi version of Islam. Initially, development concentrated on facilitating petroleum production and basic requirements such as ports, roads, hospitals, and schools. Economic diversification emphasizing private enterprise came later. Throughout all this growth, Qaboos strove to maintain the traditional character of his country, preserving ancient buildings and limiting tourism. Nevertheless, change had its price, including social dislocation, especially in rural areas, and some official corruption.
Once internal conflict and instability were quelled within his country, the Sultan sought to improve Omani relations abroad, not only with Gulf states but nations throughout the world. The Sultan constantly sought ways to improve long term peace and stability in the Middle East, taking steps that sometimes defied the traditional stance of Arab leaders. In 1981, he helped to form the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), an alliance between conservative Gulf countries to provide a joint security effort in the region. Later, he called for direct talks between Israel and Palestine to settle the Arab-Israeli conflict. In 1993, in the aftermath of the Gulf War, Qaboos signed the last of the border treaties with Oman's neighbors. Throughout his reign as sultan, Qaboos adopted a policy of peace, striving to improve Oman's prosperity through the security of the Gulf region.
Unsure and nervous in 1970, Sultan Qaboos was later known for his assurance, forceful speeches, and well groomed appearance. Dignified, soldierly, and somewhat withdrawn, he combined an appreciation for music and reading with a love of fast cars, horses, and well-appointed palaces. Sultan Qaboos has presided over an era of unprecedented change, continuing the transformation of Oman begun by his father and encouraging stability in the volatile Middle East.
Outside of brief official sketches there is no biography of Sultan Qaboos. Information is scattered among accounts in newspapers such as the Times (of London), the New York Times, and the Christian Science Monitor, as well as in works detailing Oman's recent history. Noteworthy among these are John Townsend's Oman, The Making of a Modern State (1977), J.E. Peterson's Oman in the Twentieth Century (1978), and Andrew Duncan's Money Rush (1979). □