By Rajendra Shende, Chairman TERRE Policy Centre, former Director UNEP, and IIT Alumni
I strongly feel that the United Nations owes him more than just half-mast. My experience with Oman and visits during my UN days revealed Sultan Qaboos bin Said’s new world of quiet diplomacy, a monarchy committed to the people and that skilfully engages in preventing conflicts even at the risk of jeopardizing the relations with neighbors. A monarch who risked the Arab coterie to develop global camaraderie.
The country that he led to prosperity over the last 50 years sits exactly on the Horn of Africa. But he never used that extraordinary advantageous and strategic position to take on any country by the horn, or even appeared bullish. Surrounded by warring nations in perennial conflicts, he carved out his role as a subtle and soft diplomat. He was dedicated to ensuring his people’s progress and transformation of the country towards the needs of the 21st-century world. Flowing oil from his country’s soil and fluidity of his own strategy helped him in realizing his developmental dreams.
He was much loved – not for his archaic celebrity status as is the norm in Europe dynasties but for his commitment towards the prosperity of Omanis and for the peace in the region. India declared a one-day state mourning in his honor. UN flew its blue flag half-mast. The world, however, owes Sultan much more.
The only son of the late Sultan Said bin Taimur, the eighth direct descendant of the Royal Al Busaidi line founded in 1744 by Imam Ahmad bin Said and the longest-serving leader in the Middle East and Arab world died on January 10 as quietly as his diplomacy was known for.
UN flew its blue flag half-mast at its headquarters in New York, as is tradition to mourn the death of the head of the state. He, however, was not just one of the 196 heads of state for UN. UN owes him a lot more for what he did for global peace. What he did was little known to the world, not even to the elite sky-diving diplomats who routinely get headlines for diplomatic overtures like what Henry Kissinger got for his shuttle-
diplomacy in China and Palestine in 1970s and Trump recently got for his 38-parallel-diplomacy in North Korea.
Sultan Qaboos was the epitome of ‘quiet diplomacy’, excluded from the UN Security Council, away from the table-talks at the venues like Geneva and Switzerland that did not generate headlines, but helped strengthened the bottom-line of nations’ amity. His task was as challenging as the terrain of Oman, to say the least. He navigated discreetly in developing congenial relations with the neighbors that included economically powerful countries (UAE and Saudi Arabia) and those engaged in long wars (Yemen). The other two neighbors are equally special and natural – oceans (the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea) and arid mountains as they served as trade routes.
Sultan Qaboos bin Said, born is 1940, was the only son of Sultan Said bin Taimur, the 8th generation of the Al Busaidi dynasty in Oman founded in 1744. His father sent him to the schools in England. He had his military training in the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and briefly in India. He studied Islam and the history of his country and scripted the blueprint for his country in the early 1970s when unified Sultanate of Oman with a new flag was established. For over 50 years, he was the architect of Oman’s growth and progress. His vision and concerted efforts have seen the country blossom and develop into the vibrant 21st-century hub achieved over a series of five-year plans. Oman today stands out as compared to other Middle Eastern countries because it has remained faithful to its traditions, heritage, and historical identity and at the same time embraced the modern era with full energy. It is making deliberate efforts to reduce its overdependence on oil revenue and enhance the development of SMEs.
Based on his own experience, he set improving the education sector in Oman as his topmost priority. The ‘Philosophy of Education’ document issued in 1978 during Oman’s first five-year development plan and its subsequent revisions and implementation has enabled Oman to remain in tune with the global scientific and technological developments around the world. It has been in the forefront to implement mitigation and adaptation for climate change. Oman was among the record number of countries to sign the Paris agreement on day one. It has undertaken the ambitious implementation of the Paris Climate Agreement.
Sultanate of Oman realized very early that it has previously underutilized renewable energy due to its large reserves of oil and natural gas, and the fact that these resources
provide a cheaper source of power than renewable options. Now Oman is seriously looking for an alternative sources of renewables. With a Royal Decree and a vision promulgated under Sultan Qaboos bin Said’s “Vision 2020” policy to produce 10 pc of its total electricity requirement from renewable energy sources by 2020, by investing heavily. Among the priorities in the vision document adding sustainable development into the policies and strategies as well as offering education for sustainable development in classrooms.
It launched the Sultan Qaboos Award for Sustainable Development in School Environment during the year 2018. It is in line with the international education for sustainability program supported by UNESCO. Offering education for sustainable development in classrooms has now been a priority in Oman.
Not many know that the United Nations ranked Oman first in the world in advancement up the Human Development Index over the previous 40 years, ahead of China.
Sultan Qaboos’ uncanny ability to develop a personal friendship with heads of states would remain in the history of diplomacy as legendary traits that contributed to global peace. His global outreach through personal friendships, balanced strategy and his ability to mediate between head-strong opposing countries like USA-Iran; Iran-Saudi Arabia, Yemen-Saudi Arabia, Qatar-Gulf countries would form the classical case studies in international and regional diplomacy.
He was very first among the Gulf leaders to open a constructive dialogue with China and the Soviet Union during the cold war. In 1994, he even welcomed Yitzhak Rabin, making it the first Gulf state to receive an Israeli prime minister. Two years later, it received another one, Shimon Peres. And in 2018, he received Benjamin Netanyahu. Arab states and the superpowers were taken aback when Qaboos, dressed in a traditional white thawb (robe), an Omani head turban (muzzar) and white balgha (sandals), receiving Netanyahu and his wife, Sara.
Moving against the Arab side, he supported talks between Egypt and Israel that led to a peace treaty in 1979. In 2011, Oman refused to support the suppression led by Saudi Arabia of an uprising by Shiites in Bahrain. It remained neutral when the Saudi-led military intervened against the Houthi rebels in Yemen in 2015. But, later proactively hosted the warring parties for peace talks in Oman.
Very recently when ‘Qatar-drama’ was played in the Gulf theatre, in 2016, it again remained on the side-lines when Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia and UAE along with others imposed a blockade on Qatar, accusing it of supporting terrorism and interfering in their domestic affairs. His exclusive approach helped in calming down the tempers in the region. Qaboos had also played a behind-the-curtain role in the release of a number of hostages in Yemen, prominent being Father Tom Uzhunnalil, the Vatican priest who was abducted in Yemen in March 2016 and released in September 2017.
Above all, Qaboos established a ‘diplomatic-bridge’ to Teheran that goes through Muscat. United States President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and Pompeo all understood the importance of this bridge in order to navigate in the troubled waters of the nuclear deal.
The release of American political hostages held at Iran’s Evin prison on espionage charges in 2011 and hosting secret American-Iranian talks on the nuclear file that paved the path towards the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015 were the direct results of the bridges that Qaboos built and nurtured.
How could such a diminutive figure from the corner of the Middle-East be instrumental in catalyzing peace and preventing conflicts? How his modest and reserved diplomacy to crack open the windows of peace-making worked as effectively as those of flamboyant and ostentatious fly-by diplomacy by likes of Henry Kissinger?
Part of the answer, not many western journalists realize, lies in his respect for the Indian culture and Indian philosophy that made a dent in his mind due to his dynasty’s connection with India and his own sojourn in India. When an Indian lands in Oman there is an air of appreciation in the eyes of Omanis for not only what Indians have done for Oman but also for the foundation it built for the Al Busaidi dynasty. I myself experienced such awe in the eyes of Omanis on many occasions.
Sultan Qaboos’ grandfather once ruled Oman from India. His father was a student at Ajmer’s Mayo College. Qaboos himself was in India for a short time for his education and military training in Pune, India. Like for many, short stays in India and long connect of his forefathers had made a large impact on Qaboos. “While other Gulf Arabs prefer to get on a camel and go west into the Arab desert, Omanis prefer to be on a boat and drift towards India,” said Qaboos.
The stories of Qaboos’s personal interest in Hindu temples and his path-breaking protocols like receiving Indian President inside the arriving aircraft and sending the Indian breakfast to Prime Minister Modi are the symbols of how he cultivated global political relations.
But the real story of Qaboos’s living-legacy was prominently visible after his death. As per the Omanis royal tradition, the options for the new ruler as heir were expected to be deliberated for three days and reach consensus around one name. Under Omani law, the envelope only had to be opened if the family couldn’t reach a consensus. In reality, the royal family opened the sealed envelope containing a scripted message from Sultan Qaboos, who had no children, without any deliberations by royalty. As per his wish in the letter, Sultan Haitham was appointed as the new ruler.
The world thus witnessed yet another quiet and prudent Omanis transition, amidst the strange behavior of many members of archaic monarchies. Sultan Qaboos bin Said’s death has given birth to the new idea of 21st-century monarchy and peace-diplomacy.