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The leader who gave more voice, power to his people


Richard J Schmierer -

The Sultanate of Oman is a unique country and, in many ways, one uniquely blessed. Its most recent good fortune has been in having at its helm for almost 50 years the most enlightened leader of the modern era, His Majesty Sultan Qaboos.

As I prepared to represent the United States of America as its ambassador to the Sultanate, I sought to learn as much as I could about its leader. My reading convinced me of the importance of the formative elements of Sultan Qaboos’s upbringing in shaping his approach to guiding Oman into the modern age: His education at the British military academy at Sandhurst; his service in the British Army of the Rhine; a year living with a British family in a small town in the UK, where he learned about local government administration; an around-the-world trip following his time in the UK, which included a visit to the United States; and several years spent at the royal palace in Salalah, during which he immersed himself in the study of Islam and Middle Eastern history.

This background led HM Sultan Qaboos to emerge as a polymath, with expertise not only in governance, administration and military affairs, but in such fields as history, music and architecture as well. His determination to “modernise” Oman without “westernising” it led to Oman’s unique development path, including the preservation of its traditional values and even its appearance. As HM Sultan Qaboos himself put it in a 1995 written interview in the journal that my organisation publishes, Middle East Policy: “I have borne in mind the need to preserve a careful balance between these two paramount factors — the acceptance of modernity, and the retention of old established values.”

Perhaps the capstone in the recognition of Oman’s development success under HM Sultan Qaboos came in the 2010 UN Human Development Programme report that designated Oman as the country that had achieved the greatest progress in human development in the preceding 40 years. China was listed second.

HM Sultan Qaboos’s approach in the early years of his reign to pacifying and unifying the country, as well as to launching its overdue effort towards modernisation, foreshadowed the wisdom that would come to characterise his long rule. He successfully put down the rebellion in Dhofar that he faced upon his accession by using a combination of military power and conciliation, that is, outreach to entice opponents to switch sides and join him in developing the country. Many of them did, and some of them continue to serve in the government to this day.

HM Sultan Qaboos’s early international efforts included resolving the many border disputes he inherited. As he himself noted, if a country has recognised and peaceful borders, in effect, it has no borders at all. From the outset of his reign, HM Sultan Qaboos also established Oman’s benign foreign policy, often summarised as “friend to all, enemy to none”.

As he steered his country through a fast-paced modernisation, Sultan Qaboos sought opportunities to empower the Omani people, most notably through the Basic Law introduced in 1996. At the time of the Arab Spring, I observed Sultan Qaboos’s enlightened response, which included amending the Basic Law to introduce several measures that gave a greater voice to the Omani people, in particular through the Majlis Ash’shura and municipal elections.

I had the good fortune to engage regularly with HM Sultan Qaboos during the years of my ambassadorship, and came to appreciate the genius and benevolence behind his rule. I recall his enthusiasm in describing initiatives for new educational facilities and athletic programmes for Omani boys and girls in the wake of the Arab Spring, and his patience and understanding in the face of sometimes self-interested demands by young Omani protesters. While correctly described as having no children of his own, in fact, it is clear to those who came to know him during his reign that HM Sultan Qaboos viewed Oman’s youth as his children.

As an American, I am also grateful for the wise counsel HM Sultan Qaboos provided to the United States and to US officials as the region became more and more inflamed in sectarian strife in recent years. One case stands out in my experience.

I arrived in Muscat to begin serving as the US ambassador in September 2009. Shortly before that time, three young Americans had been detained by Iranian border guards while hiking in Iraq. The US government sought assistance from allies in gaining their release; as the US ambassador, I raised the issue with HM Sultan Qaboos.

At his direction, Oman began to quietly engage the Iranians on the issue. The Omani diplomat involved quickly discovered that the Iranians were deeply sceptical of US intentions. So, drawing on the advice of my Omani interlocutor on the issue. I worked with the State Department to undertake small but meaningful steps — what diplomats call confidence-building measures — to demonstrate US goodwill.

The patient Omani effort paid off. First one of the three — the woman being held — was released, and then the two men were freed. This success led to the first-ever visits by a US secretary of state to Oman. Secretary Hillary Clinton visited Muscat twice, in January and October of 2011, to thank HM Sultan Qaboos for his efforts and to explore possible Omani assistance in addressing the issue of the Iranian nuclear programme. The rest is history.

This anecdote speaks volumes about the wisdom, compassion and courage of HM Sultan Qaboos. He will long be remembered and appreciated by a grateful Omani citizenry, and by people of goodwill the world over. As someone who had the good fortune to come to know HM Sultan Qaboos, I can say that he inspired me, just as he inspired so many during his lifetime. He will be missed.

The writer is President and Chairman of the Board, Middle East Policy Council and former US Ambassador to the Sultanate of Oman (2009-2012). Schmierer holds a MA and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

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