Who was Oman's Sultan Qaboos bin Said and why is his death important?

Who was Sultan Qaboos bin Said and why is his death so important? (Picture: Chris Jackson/PA Wire)

The death of Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said at the age of 79 marks a significant moment for the state that he ruled for half a century.

A new ruler of Oman, Sultan Qaboos’ cousin Haitham bin Tariq, has been sworn in but he will have a tough act to follow.

His predecessor had built a reputation as a mediator within the Middle East and on a wider scale and his death comes amid escalating global tensions following the killing of a top Iranian general by the US and retaliation by Iran.

Who was Sultan Qaboos bin Said?

Born in Salalah on November 18, 1940, Sultan Qaboos was educated in Britain, including spending time at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst.

In 1970, at the age of 29, he overthrew his father Said bin Taimer in a British-assisted coup that marked the start of transformation for Oman.

Sultan of Oman Qaboos bin Said was responsible for modernising the country in the 50 years he was in power (Picture: PA)

Sultan Qaboos adopted a far more modern approach than his ultra-conservative father, whose bans included electricity, music and listening to the radio.

His son abolished slavery and used Oman’s oil revenues to establish infrastructure like roads, an electric grid, hospitals, schools and airports, helping turn the state into a tourist destination within the Middle East.

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The Sultan, who is believed to have died of colon cancer, had previously spent eight months in a hospital in Germany, with the royal court only saying that the treatment he received was successful.

In December 2019, he travelled to Belgium for a week for what the court described as “medical checks”.

The sultan, who died single with no children, had married his first cousin in 1976 but they divorced three years later.

Why is his death important?

Under Sultan Qaboos, Oman became a mediator within the Middle East, refusing to take sides in various conflicts.

In past years, its role has included helping free US captives in Iran and Yemen, hosting visits by Israeli officials, holding talks between Saudi Arabia and Houthi rebels and also mediating between Iran and the US over the proposed nuclear deal signed in 2015.

In a rare interview with a Kuwaiti newspaper in 2008, he said: “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 (right), pictured here in 2017 with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani ((left) had developed a reputation as a mediator (Picture: Iranian Presidency / Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

With global tensions higher than ever following the killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani by the US in Baghdad and ensuing missile strikes by Iran, the death of Sultan Qaboos could not come at a worse time.

“Maintaining this sort of equidistant type of relationship … is going to be put to the test,” said Gary A Grappo, a former US 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.”

What happens now?

Will Sultan Qaboos' successor be able to step into his shoes? (Picture: PA)

Haitham bin Tariq, Oman's culture minister and the cousin of Sultan Qaboos, has been sworn in as the new royal ruler, the government said Saturday.

At the time of his death, Qaboos had no children and had not publicly appointed a successor but had recorded his choice in a sealed envelope.

According to the law in Oman, the royal family has to choose a new sultan within three days and if it can not agree, it chooses the person picked by the Sultan in their letter.

The government said in a tweet: “Haitham bin Tariq was sworn in as the new sultan of the country... after a meeting of the family which decided to appoint the one who was chosen by the sultan.”