Death of Qaboos

by | Jan 24, 2020

Qaboos bin Said al-Said, the Sultan of Oman, passed away on January 10th, 2020.

Kind of a big deal for the people of Oman and the Middle East. The rest of the world? Not so much. But the fact is, the region lost its longest ruling leader. One of the wisest, most progressive, most visionary minds in that part of the world. And a vitally important diplomatic “friend” of the United States.

Say what you will about the deal, he was the intermediary who brought the U.S. and Iran together to create the Nuclear Pact of 2015. He also helped us gain the release of the hikers captured by Iran in 2011. We may never know the extent of the sultan’s influence to maintain back-channel communications with Oman’s more volatile neighbors.

Qaboos had been suffering from colon cancer since I was there five years ago. Rumors were swirling even then that he’d already died. Evidently, he’d soldiered on until a few weeks ago after seeking “Hail Mary” treatments in Europe.  

He was 79.

The Said family has ruled Oman for 15 generations. Qaboos returned from England in 1966 where he had gone to college and served in the British Army. After living under house arrest for four years, he overthrew his father after a bloodless coup in 1970 and quickly went to work dragging his country from the middle ages into the 20th century.

He abolished slavery, granted freedom of religion, and even funded the construction of Catholic, Protestant and Hindu places of worship, as well as his own Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. (An incredible place to visit!) He used the country’s oil revenues to completely modernize the infrastructure. Built roads, an electric grid, schools, universities, hospitals, and airports, a telecommunications network, a major international shipping port, and, within only a few decades, he had brought his people out of the darkness. 

When I was there, I was struck by the warmth of the people I met and the progressiveness of the culture. Driving through Muscat felt similar to driving on I-275 through Tampa. Then I began to notice something unexpected.


Driving cars. Working on computers. Reading books. Working in stores. And my guide bragged about their female airline pilots, female teachers, and female doctors.

When you eventually find Oman on the map, you realize why that surprised me.

Saudi Arabia borders Oman to the west. Iran is a mere 80 miles across the Gulf of Oman to the north, near the Straits of Hormuz. Yemen is to the south. Once you grasp Oman’s proximity to the most unstable places on Earth, do you begin to appreciate the country’s ability to remain virtually invisible on the world stage. It might also make you ask yourself why several major cruise lines stop there. But I, for one, am glad they do. Oman is one of the safest countries in the Middle East for tourists to visit. And we have more to learn and understand about their culture than they do about ours. 

So, how was Qaboos able to achieve so much progress in such little time? He was a benign dictator.

Oman is an absolute monarchy with absolutely NO system of checks and balances. No separation of powers. The sultan was chief of staff of the armed forces, Minister of Defense, Minister of Foreign Affairs and chairman of the Central Bank. All legislation since 1970 has been through royal decrees. The sultan appointed judges, granted pardons and commuted sentences. The sultan’s authority was limitless, and he expected total subordination to his will. 

Most everyone was willing to “go along to get along.” And when they didn’t, for example during the Arab Spring, he fired a third of his ruling cabinet for not attending to the needs of the people more effectively. (Hmmm. Wish we could do that with Congress…)

Keep in mind, prior to 1970, Oman was one of the most primitive countries in the Middle East. Today, it’s one of the most progressive. Which is why the cab drivers in Oman say, “Before Qaboos, nothing.”

The burning question now is…”And after Qaboos?”

Qaboos was married briefly to his first cousin. Had two daughters. No male heirs. And it was rumored that his preference for male companionship made the possibility of ever producing an heir virtually, um, improbable. So, understandably, the uncertainty of the country’s line of succession has created a great deal of discomfort among the Omani.

But finally, the other day, a full week after his death, they found a letter Qaboos had written naming his cousin Haitham bin Tariq Al Said as his successor. So stay tuned. And if you see Oman falling off the itineraries of your favorite cruise line, you’ll know that “After Qaboos, nothing.”