John McKeown –
Courage was one of the marked qualities of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos, from his earliest days as ruler through the many years of making and carrying through difficult political, social and economic choices, to the last few years of illness.
I served in the headquarters of the Sultan’s Armed Forces, on secondment from the British Army, in 1975-76. British officers were fully integrated into SAF. They were not just advisers or instructors, but fully members of the units in which they served, sharing the hardships and dangers with their Omani comrades: many of them were wounded or died in the service.
While no-one wishes now to dwell on that painful conflict so many years ago, I believe it is worth remembering that His Majesty Sultan Qaboos led a nation at war for his first years in power, when much of the wealth of the country had to be spent on defence.
His Majesty Sultan Qaboos was personally brave: I recall the admiration of one of his close quarter protection soldiers speaking of the many times the new Sultan went into harm’s way to meet his people on the jabal. He had trained at the British Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, and gained experience as an infantry officer in a British regiment.
Once Dhofar was secure for civil development, Oman moved into a breathtaking period of investment in health, education and infrastructure. Again, this required real courage. With limited funds compared with more oil-rich countries, the commitment of huge resources needed a steady resilient man with the nerve to carry it through. Giving equal priority to the education of girls also needed resolve in a region where this was not the norm. General toleration and moderation in the Sultanate were in contrast with many neighbours.
Each time I have returned to the Sultanate I have marvelled at the sustained modernisation taking place so quickly, and I am impressed at the high level of education, attainment and culture of the people. The award of the Man Booker International Prize to Jokha al Harthy last year was a monumental achievement.
Internationally, Oman in the time of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos has been a place of peaceful stability amid a Middle East torn by conflict and war. To sustain a policy of being friends with everyone who accepts friendship, and enemies of no-one, requires another kind of courage, because it needs hard choices to be made in the face of opposition. For example: not to punish Qatar when your close friends require it; not to ostracise Iran when others view it as an enemy; to provide aid and succour to South Yemen but not join the conflict there on either side; to invite the prime minister of Israel to visit. Oman has been able to act as honest broker in bringing people together.
Some years after I left the Sultanate at the end of 1976, I spent an intense year at Cambridge University studying for an MPhil in international relations. My dissertation subject was Britain and Oman: the Dhofar War and its Significance. In that year of study I learnt of the extraordinary length and depth of the friendship between our two nations, in times of peace and strife, over centuries. I continue my commitment and interest, not least in the Anglo-Omani Society which His Majesty Sultan Qaboos endowed in London specifically to nourish and extend the friendship.
It is now 220 years since an agreement between Oman and Britain declared that the bond between the nations should be ”unshook to the end of time”. Last year this was renewed with the Joint Declaration on Enduring Friendship and the subsequent UK-Oman Comprehensive Agreement, following an earlier Joint Defence Agreement. His Majesty Sultan Qaboos himself was at the forefront in ensuring that our close friendship was maintained in the spirit of the 1800 treaty, The personal friendship between His Majesty Qaboos, Queen Elizabeth and other members of the British Royal Family has been notable over the years. It was no surprise that within 24 hours of the late Sultan’s death Prince Charles was on his way to the Sultanate, together with the Prime Minister, a Secretary of State, the Chief of Defence Staff and other notables, to offer condolences on his death and to pay their respects to His Majesty Sultan Haitham bin Tarik.
His Majesty Sultan Qaboos’ legacy is to hand to his successor a peaceful, modern, tolerant and international state which is in many ways a model to its neighbours. His Majesty Sultan Haitham bin Tarik faces big challenges, not least economically where the oil industry is facing lower returns and some hostility. As the renaissance period perhaps comes to an end, the new era under the new Sultan promises an exciting future, which will be watched with great goodwill by so many of us.
The writer, a Brigadier who served in the Sultan’s Armed Forces in 1975-1976, is currently vice-chairman of the Anglo-Omani Society and editor of the annual Society Review.