Al Bu Sa'id, Qaboos (1940–)

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Al Bu Sa'id, Qaboos

Omani political figure Qaboos (also Qabus) bin Sa'id Al Bu Said is, from 1970 on, the sultan of Oman. Qaboos is credited with the Omani Renaissance: the political, economic, and cultural rebirth of the country in the late twentieth century following the long period of political repression, instability and economic depression under his father, Sultan Sa'id bin Taymur Al Bu Sa'id (1932–1970).


Qaboos was born in Salalah in Oman's southern province of Dhofar on 18 November 1940, the only son of Sultan Sa'id bin Taymur (d. 1972) and Taymur's second wife Mayzun bint Ahmad al-Ma'ashani (d. late 1990s), a Qara woman of the Bayt Ma'ashani clan of Dhofar. Qaboos' early life was spent in the royal compound in Salalah, where he received private tutoring. In 1958 he went to England for further private schooling before entering the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst in September 1960. Upon graduating from Sandhurst in August 1962, Qaboos served a one-year tour of duty with the British army in Germany. His education was completed with a private course in local government in England and then a world tour before returning to Oman in late 1964.

Upon his return to Salalah, Qaboos remained isolated from government affairs, except for occasional briefings by Sa'id's mostly foreign personal advisors, and devoted his time to the study of Islamic law and Omani history. Personal relationships were limited to carefully selected palace officials, and efforts by Sultan Sa'id's advisors to include Qaboos in the affairs of state were rebuffed. Qaboos did use his limited contacts to express his displeasure with Oman's political and economic conditions.


Name: Qaboos bin Sa'id Al Bu Sa'id

Birth: 1940, Salalah, Oman

Nationality: Omani

Family: Divorced. Former wife: Kamila (formerly Nawwal) bint Tariq Al- Sa'id (m. 1976); no children

Education: Oman private tutors; England private tutors, 1958–1960; Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, September 1960–August 1962.


  • 1970–present: Sultan of Oman
  • 1971: Becomes prime minister and minister of defense, finance, and foreign affairs
  • 1975: Proclaims victory in Dhofar
  • 1981: Forms State Consultative Council; Oman named a founding member of the Arabian Gulf Cooperation Council
  • 1994: Arrests Islamic fundamentalists in plot against Omani government
  • 1995: Survives automobile accident in which Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Qays bin Abd al-Mun'im al-Zawawi dies
  • 1996: Proclaims Basic Statute of the State
  • 2002: Extends voting rights to all Omanis over the age of twenty-one
  • 2005: Arrests Islamic opposition plotting overthrow of government

On 23 July 1970 Qaboos succeeded his father following a nearly bloodless palace coup. The action was coordinated by Sultan Sa'id's British military advisors. The actual coup was lead by Burayk bin Hamud al-Ghafiri, the son of Sultan Sa'id's governor of Dhofar, who led a group of the sultan's bodyguards to the palace. After a brief struggle, Sultan Sa'id surrendered, signed an abdication document, received medical attention for a superficial gunshot wound, and then was flown off into exile in England. Once Qaboos secured his position in Salala, he flew to Muscat—seeing the sultanate's capital city for the first time—to announce the New Oman.

Qaboos became sultan of a country in disarray. An insurgency dating from the mid-1960s raged throughout Dhofar, with Marxist-inspired rebels, who received material support from South Yemen, in control of most of the province except for Salala. Political dissatisfaction also threatened to erupt in northern Oman where some supported reestablishment of a traditional Ibadi imamate such as had ruled much of interior Oman until its defeat by Sultan Sa'id and his British allies in 1957. Much of the opposition, whether in Dhofar or northern Oman, was a result of the slow pace of economic development. Oil was discovered in 1964 and exports began in 1967. Sultan Sa'id had prepared a development plan, but much of the oil income went to suppressing the rebels in Dhofar, and the sultan was reluctant to commit to economic and social programs in any event.

The first decade of the new sultan was devoted to consolidation of his authority by defeating the insurgents in Dhofar through reorganization and modernization of the military and establishing a strong institutional basis for his government. At the same time, the social causes of political dissatisfaction required attention, and Qaboos began implementing his father's development plan for a modern port, airport, road system, educational and health facilities, and added to the plan with housing and a communication infrastructure. By the middle of the 1970s, Oman had been transformed from an unstable, backward country to one well on the path to becoming a modern state.

Once his position was consolidated, Qaboos began devoting more attention to larger political and development issues. First and foremost was the question of succession. On 22 March 1976, Sultan Qaboos married his cousin Nawwal (later Kamila) bint Tariq Al Sa'id. Unfortunately, the marriage ended in divorce with no heir to the throne. In other areas, Qaboos was more successful. Economic development had been disorganized, not surprising given the need to build a new country from the ground up. By 1976, in the wake of a financial crisis and a World Bank study of the Omani economy, Qaboos placed economic development on a more orderly footing by approving the first comprehensive five-year plan. Political change came much more slowly. Qaboos remained one of the world's few absolute rulers where the ruler was isolated from his subjects. Oman had no tradition of the majlis (a gathering for discussion) that is so much a part of traditional leadership in the Arabian Peninsula. However, in 1975 he launched "Meet the People" tours in which he and the full complement of his ministers and other government officials took up residence in some part of the country to hear and deal with local complaints. Then in October 1981 a royal decree created the State Consultative Council, the sultanate's first representative consultative body. Political reform culminated with the proclamation of the Basic Statute of the State, a constitution-like document, in November 1996.

Although Qaboos' political reforms and economic development programs resulted in tremendous popularity, his regime has experienced some opposition. Early plots against the government in 1972 and 1974 were remnants of opposition to Sultan Sa'id. However, in May and June 1994, the government discovered a plot to overthrow Qaboos by Islamic militants that was quickly suppressed. A second plot, this one inspired by a group seeking to reestablish the Ibadi imamate, was uncovered in February 2004. Sedition trials followed in both cases, but Qaboos eventually pardoned all of those found guilty. The only other matter to threaten Qaboos' reign was a September 1995 traffic accident in which a car he was driving, which had been stopped along the highway, was struck from behind by another vehicle. Although a passenger in his car, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Qays bin Abd al-Mun'im al-Zawawi, died, Qaboos and two other passengers survived.


Qaboos' policies and personal style are very much a result of four factors: his military background; his appreciation of Omani history and culture and desire to Omanize the sultanate; his desire to balance the tradition of royal sovereignty with the demands of popular participation in government; and his love for the environment.

His first priority upon becoming sultan was to defeat the insurgency in Dhofar. Most of his focus was on the military aspect of the conflict, and Qaboos' interest in military affairs is something that he acknowledged as late as 1995 when he told an interviewer, "I am a military man." This began with reorganization and supply of all branches of the sultan's Armed Forces, including a much larger and more centralized Dhofar Brigade. Qaboos made two important changes in the Brigade. First, recruitment expanded rapidly, in part to reduce the historic dependency on foreign, mostly ethnic Baluchi, mercenaries. Second, Qaboos authorized creation of the firqat, paramilitary units comprised entirely of Dhofaris who had surrendered to the government. Sultan Sa'id had rejected such a notion, but Qaboos embraced it as an important way to win the hearts and minds of the Dhofari people. Furthermore, the sultan internationalized the war, despite opposition from his Arab neighbors. British involvement in the Omani armed forces, already considerable, increased with the inclusion of a Special Air Service (SAS) unit. As the war progressed, a 4,000—man Iranian force and Jordanian special forces joined the British troops. The greatly expanded, modernized, and interna-tionalized force began a series of campaigns that succeeded in establishing a government presence throughout Dhofar on a permanent basis. On 11 December 1975, Sultan Qaboos announced victory.

Although victory in the Dhofar War eliminated the greatest threat to Omani security, defense remained a primary focus of Sultan Qaboos. Military expenditures expanded greatly during the 1970s and 1980s as all units in the sultan's armed forces and royal Oman police obtained modern equipment and a full educational and social services infrastructure. Defense expenditures continue to consume a large percentage of the Omani budget, and Qaboos' association with the military is constantly reinforced in his public appearances at military events and his wearing of military uniforms.

The victory in Dhofar did not arise completely from military action, a fact that highlights the importance of Qaboos' appreciation of Omani history and culture as well as his desire to Omanize the sultanate. In addition to military reform, Qaboos incorporated a so-called "hearts and minds" campaign to gain the support of the Dhofari population. This campaign began in August 1970 when Qaboos issued a general amnesty to any rebel who surrendered to the government. Qaboos then appointed the Dhofar Development Council with a Civil Aid Department and Civilian Action Teams that drilled wells and built schools, medical and veterinary clinics, mosques, and shops in newly liberated villages. Such actions greatly reduced support for the insurgency.

Even Qaboos' military focus demonstrates his commitment to Omanization. At the end of the Dhofar War, the officer corps was almost exclusively British. By the end of 1977, Omani officers commanded all infantry units. The first Omani commander of the army was appointed in 1984 and Omanization became complete in 1990 when both the air force and navy came under Omani command.

On the broader national scale, Qaboos has also sought to insure that economic and social change does not come at the expense of Omani traditions and identity. Government policies have focused on a free-market, laissez faire model of development. The rapid expansion of all sectors of the economy resulted in an influx of foreign labor at all levels from construction workers to managers. However, as the population has grown, education programs that emphasize the creation of a highly skilled workforce sought to replace expatriate labor with Omani. Qaboos also encouraged the adoption of specific Omanization programs that restricted the hiring of foreign workers.

Qaboos also encouraged the development of cultural and religious institutions. Among the first ministries to be established was National Heritage, which was charged with developing a national cultural museum and archive, publishing historical and religious texts, preserving historic buildings, and promoting national handicrafts. Qaboos also began funding the construction of mosques and various religious institutes throughout the country. The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in the Capital Area is one of the largest in the world.

Political development also incorporates Qaboos understanding of Omani tradition, especially as it relates to royal sovereignty. The initial phases of political modernization coincided with the Dhofar War. The new sultan had inherited only the basic rudiments of a modern state in July 1970. Sultan Sa'id's highly personal and centralized rule meant few exercised any real authority. Immediately after the coup, the British advisors, mostly holdovers from Sultan Sa'id's regime but supporters of Qaboos, created an Interim Advisory Board to oversee the transition. The board's first act was to invite Qaboos' uncle, Sayyid (Prince) Tariq bin Taymur, to return from exile in Germany to become the prime minister of the new government. Qaboos was probably not consulted in this matter. A consequence was that the new sultan and his uncle set up competing cabinets, Sayyid Tariq appointing a government of technocrats and opponents to Sultan Sa'id. Qaboos drew on a more traditional group drawn from close associates to the old regime. The system did not work, and in December 1971 Tariq resigned. The new cabinet, with Qaboos as prime, defense, foreign, and finance ministers, combined both Qaboos' and Tariq's officials and remained in place until conclusion of the Dhofar War. Then in 1974 Qaboos introduced major changes to the cabinet when members of the Omani commercial establishment, most with strong historical ties to the Al Bu Sa'id regime, were brought into the government. This served to consolidate Qaboos' hold on government and maintained the tradition of centralized authority under the sultan.

However, Qaboos remained cognizant of the political tradition of shura, or consultation, a central principle of Oman's Ibadi school of Islam. The shura tradition was institutionalized in 1981 with the creation of the State Consultative Council (SCC). The SCC combined government officials, business community, and popular representation, all appointed by the sultan, to discuss, not legislate, social and economic matters. This body evolved further in November 1990 when Qaboos announced its replacement by the Majlis al-Shura. A significant change with the new body was that representation came exclusively from the general population. The selection process at first involved local nominations and royal appointment but has evolved into direct election by universal adult suffrage. As of 2007, two women have won election to the Majlis. Although still limited to social and economic issues, the Majlis reviews all proposed legislation and can, itself, propose laws.

Political development progressed further when in November 1996 Qaboos announced promulgation of the Basic Statue of the State, Oman's first constitution-like document. Although the Basic Statute confirms the sovereignty of the sultan, the document does establish guarantees for personal rights and freedoms, along with duties, and expands the representative nature of government with the establishment of the Oman Council, a bicameral consultative body comprised of the existing Majlis and a new, fully appointed upper house called the Council of State. Many of the general provisions of the Basic Statute have been implemented, most notably judicial reform, which established a much more independent judiciary, and legislation expanding personal freedoms, such as the legalization of labor unions in 2006.

An important matter addressed by the Basic Statute was the question of succession. Qaboos has no children and has not designated an heir, preferring to allow the royal family to deliberate and consult on the future sultan. The Basic Statute spells out the specific procedures to be followed in this process.

Finally, while military affairs and political matters have attracted much of Qaboos' attention, his interest in the natural environment has resulted in Oman being recognized as one of the rare developing countries in which conservation and anti-pollution policies has been put in place during development, rather than after the fact. As the war in Dhofar was winding down in 1974, Qaboos promulgated Oman's first environmental law and created an office for conservation of the environment. The government then commissioned flora and fauna surveys, and the first nature reserves—in Jabal al-Akhdar and the coastal wetlands at Qurum—were established in 1979.

The major conservation effort was the reintroduction of the Arabian oryx. The oryx was hunted to extinction in its natural habitat in 1972. The Omani government, in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and American zoos, reintroduced a herd of oryx to the Jiddat al-Harasis region of central Oman. In addition to the nature preserves and the oryx project, Qaboos has encouraged attention to the marine environment. Governmental programs have focused on sea turtles in the Ra's al-Had nesting area and have focused on coral reef preservation.

These efforts have resulted in considerable international recognition. Sultan Qaboos received the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) award for conservation in 1989, and was invited to deliver the keynote address at the 1992 Earth Summit. The IUCN elected Oman to its governing council in 1994 and then awarded Qaboos its Philips Memorial Medal in recognition of his environmental activism in 1996. The oryx reclamation project received United Nations World Heritage Site status in 1994.


Qaboos' international reputation as a moderate Arab and Islamic leader is well established. His political and cultural reforms have balanced Western secular views of democracy and personal freedoms with Oman's Muslim religious traditions. More importantly to the international community, Qaboos adopted an independent foreign policy based principally on Omani political and economic interests, rather than on ideological concerns.

For example, despite the objections of conservative Arab neighbors and the U.S. as well as his personal opposition to communism, Qaboos established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China in the 1970s. However, Qaboos also refused to side with the Arab League boycott of Egypt following President Anwar Sadat's peace treaty with Israel in 1977. Then in 1980, Qaboos, concerned with the regional destabilization caused by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, signed agreements with the United States granting American access to military facilities in Oman, again with strong opposition from his Arab neighbors. This access proved to be important in the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, and Omani access agreements became a model for similar agreements signed by Qaboos' previously reluctant neighbors.

Qaboos has also maintained strong regional relations. As one of the founders of the Arabian Gulf Cooperation Council, Qaboos advocated the need for mutual defense over economic reform and proposed a joint defense force. Although his partners rejected Qaboos' view, Oman continued to work closely with its neighbors toward economic integration and concluded treaties over long-contested borders. At the same time, Qaboos maintained good relations with Iran, first under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlevi, who provided military assistance during the Dhofar War, and then after 1978 with the Islamic Republic, emphasizing the shared responsibility of Iran and Oman for the Straits of Hormuz, the strategic waterway linking the Persian Gulf and its oil facilities with the wider world. Oman has also played a leading role in the founding of the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation.


Sultan Qaboos will always be remembered as the founder of modern Oman. Although recent scholarship on Oman questioning the extent to which Qaboos deserves absolute credit for the renaissance and some criticism about government corruption and the isolation of the sultan has replaced the universal adulation of the 1970s and 1980s, there is no denying that Oman has undergone a political and economic transformation under his rule.

In addition to his domestic legacy, through his charitable giving Qaboos has also established an international legacy. Every two years since 1991, UNESCO awards a new winner the Sultan Qaboos Prize for Environmental Preservation in recognition of Qaboos' personal commitment to environmental issues. Qaboos has also endowed chairs in Arabic and Arab studies at American, British, and Australian universities, in addition to funding other causes internationally.


Allen, Calvin H., Jr. and W. Lynn Rigsbee, II. Oman under Qaboos: From Coup to Constitution, 1970–1996. London: Frank Cass, 2000.

Kechichian, Joseph A. Oman and the World: The Emergence of and Independent Foreign Policy. Santa Monica, California: Rand Corporation, 1995.

Owtram, Francis. A Modern History of Oman: Formation of the State Since 1920. London: I. BIN Taurus, 2004.

Peterson, J. E. Oman Since 1970: Tradition Transformed. London: I.BIN Taurus, 2007.

Riphenburg, Carol J. Oman: Political Development in a Changing World. London: Praeger, 1998.

                                                  Calvin Allen