Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

The Rule of Sultan Qaboos

Sultan of Oman Qaboos
Sultan of Oman Qaboos bin Said al-Said (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / POOL / AFP)


The Dhofar rebellion led to a bloodless palace coup in July 1970, when Sultan Said bin Taymur was overthrown by his son, Qaboos bin Said. Qaboos, born in Salalah in November 1940, had partly been educated in Great Britain, where he studied first at a private college from 1958 onwards and subsequently at the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst. As an officer in the British army he served for a short time in the Federal Republic of Germany. In 1965, after advanced studies in London and a world tour, he was called home and placed in isolation in the palace in Salalah.

Qaboos‘ more cosmopolitan and progressive views clashed with his father’s predilection for conservatism and isolationism of Oman. Supported by the British and by the political elite in Oman, the then 30 year-old Qaboos assumed power after the coup d’état of 1970. His father went into exile in London, where he died in 1972.

Sultan Qaboos inherited a country that was plagued by illiteracy, poverty and a lack of adequate social infrastructure such as education and health care. He also was immediately confronted with the continuing fierce rebellion in Dhofar. With the involvement of British troops and equipment, armed units from Jordan and Iran, and financial backing by Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, the Dhofar rebellion was finally put down in 1975.

Qaboos’ rule as an enlightened autocrat signalled the beginning of the transformation of Oman into a modern state. The Sultan established a modern structure of government, launched fundamental changes in education and health care, built a modern infrastructure and developed the country’s important oil and gas resources. He is considered the most popular leader in the Arab world by far. Omani political culture is characterized by respect for patriarchal  leadership, an overall acceptance of the current form of government and the legitimacy of the nation-state. However, it appears from time to time that the Omani citizens aspire to greater political participation. Despite all his reforms, the Sultan does not seem inclined to introduce major changes to the current system.

Recent developments

Although Oman was always considered a politically stable country, the country witnessed unrest and protests, starting in January 2011, when demonstraters  protested against rising unemployment figures, cost of living and corruption among government officials, and to demand better working conditions and salaries. On a political level the demonstrators called for greater civil and political rights, greater power for the advisory Shura Council, judiciary independence and guaranteed freedom of expression.Some also carried banners with slogans supporting the Sultan. In February and March, protesters also gathered at the Globe Roundabout in Sohar, holding up the traffic and demanding a ‘real parliament’. The protests soon spread to other cities such as Haima. The police and army have broken up the protest camps and arrested an unknown number of persons. There have also been a number of deaths following the protests.

Despite limited social and political reforms announced by Sultan Qaboos in 2011, protests re-emerged in the spring of 2012 over unemployment and the slow pace of reforms. A wave of arrests targeted human rights activists, bloggers and journalists who had criticized the government’s failure to implement reforms and protect human rights. In 2012, a total of 35 activists were sentenced to prison for protesting and expressing their views on social media, according to Human Rights Watch.

The uprising in Oman has forced authorities to compromise on transparency and accountability in governance. All in all, Sultan Qaboos has responded to the protests with more substantial reforms than other Gulf monarchs. One explanation for his exceptional stance is that all authority is concentrated in the Sultan’s hands; moreover, he is not constrained by frictions within the ruling family. Yet, renewed protests were a sign that limited political and social reforms have not satisfied Omanis. The Sultan has managed to avoid further crisis, but at a price: continued repression of activists and further restrictions in freedom of expression and assembly.