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OMAN - Profile - Sultan Qaboos Bin Said Bin Taimour Al Said.

As the ruler since July 23, 1970, when he deposed his father Said Bin Taimour, Sultan Qaboos is immensely popular in Oman. He has concentrated on modernising Oman and creating a balanced socio-economic base. In almost 32 years of his rule, Oman has been transformed from a primitive country without basic infrastructure to one of the most important states in the region. This has been done in an environment of political stability since 1970.

Credit for these achievements is attributed to the multi-disciplinary personality of Qaboos, a personality with insight into several cultures. Alert to changes across the globe, he has been quick to perceive new tendencies emerging since the end of the Cold War. He is a sensitive man, gentle but very shrewd, benevolent towards his people and magnanimous to critics.

The Sultan is calculatingly generous as a ruler, bold as a planner but cautious as a strategist, fiercely independent as a geo-politician and a master in the art of manipulation. A pragmatic thinker, he is cool in the face of danger and has a unique ability to perceive risks. He is liberal yet very conscious of Oman's socio-religious traditions.

Qaboos controls decision making in the petroleum sector. He personally ratifies important E&P contracts and other key projects. While he often listens to his advisors in this sector, he tends to make up his own mind.

Foreign "advisors" to the sultan in the energy sector during the past several years have included Orin Atkins, a former chairman of Ashland Oil; Ghassan Shaker, a Saudi tycoon of Turkish origin close to the Saudi royal family; and Omar Yahya, a Libyan who has worked for Shaker. The Sultan occasionally seeks the advice of current or former CEOs of Shell and other multinationals.

The Sultan has nurtured Oman's ambition to be a major gas exporter. In an interview with the London-based 'Middle East' magazine, he said: "Experts have indicated that after the year 2000, our income from gas will be almost equivalent to that from oil". Oman LNG began exports in April 2000. Now Oman LNG is working on a third 3.3m t/y train to be built at its plant in Qalhat, near Sur (see Gas Market Trends No. 7).

Sultan Qaboos is aware of the dangers of over-dependence on oil revenues. In his national day address on Nov. 18, 1995, he said: "We have no choice but to develop the domestic economy so oil will be left with a limited share in the national income as it is a depletable source on which we should not depend for our development". He is for private participation in all spheres of industry.

The Sultan and his aides had perceived the dangers of the population's very rapid growth since the mid-1980s, when the annual birth rate among Omanis was well over 4%. He launched the "Omanisation" programme at the time, together with a massive education drive, for young Omanis to replace the expatriates.

About 50% of the Omanis are aged less than 15 years; and the number of Omani school leavers and university graduates joining the job market exceeds 26,500 per annum, compared to 22,000/year by end-1995. Officials had warned in late 1995 that they would more than double by 2002, because of the big ratio of children in the Omani population. This could cause the problem of unemployment to become serious. Sultan Qaboos has a number of advisors helping him in the Omanisation programme. Among these advisors is Yakzan Bin Talib Al Hinai, who is a key proponent of Omanisation.

In regional politics, Qaboos is an astute strategist, always promoting good neighbourly relations. He maintained good ties with Iran during the 1980-88 war, with Iraq during and after the 1990-91 Gulf crisis, and with Jordan (the late King Hussein having been a friend of the Sultan) at a time when Amman was isolated by the rest of the GCC. Within the GCC, Sultan Qaboos positions Oman in a balancing role opposite Saudi Arabia.

A strong supporter of the Middle East peace process, he decided in 1994 that Oman should be the first in the GCC to host Arab-Israeli talks. Multilateral talks on water were held in Muscat on April 17-20, 1994. He invited, and received, Israeli Premier Rabin in Muscat in December 1994. He sent Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Yusef Bin Alawi Bin Abdullah to Israel for the funeral of Rabin, who was assassinated by a Jewish extremist on Nov. 4, 1995. He sent Bin Alawi to the anti-terrorism summit at Sharm Al Shaikh on March 13, 1996. On April 1, 1996 he received Premier Peres in Muscat. But he ordered a freeze in contacts with Israel after Likud leader Netanyahu became prime minister in June 1996, because of his government's negative approach to peace with the Arabs. Qaboos has been frustrated by the behaviour of the current Likud Premier Sharon.

Popularity At Home: No ruler in the Middle East matches Sultan Qaboos in terms of popularity with his subjects. Unlike any other ruler, Qaboos frequently drives alone and unescorted by bodyguards. He makes late-night tours of the capital in his BMW.

Every year the Sultan drives through the country's interior on a three-week tour, camping in the desert and inviting all to share their grievances with him. He is loved everywhere; his accessibility, coupled with a striking simplicity and logic, have made him a unique person.

The Sultan's eye is everywhere and stories about his interventions abound. In 1993, for example, he saw a new McDonald's with soaring golden arches while driving along a highway in Muscat. The next morning he issued a decree and the arches disappeared. In 1990, he drove with some friends and close aides past an estate of new homes put up by one of his relatives. "Too close", he exclaimed. "In a few years they will be a slum. Pull them down", he ordered. Demolition work began within days, but a money-draft for compensation arrived shortly thereafter.

Sultan Qaboos is single, however, and does not seem to be in a hurry to nominate a successor. This and his accessibility are causes of deep worry among most aides.

The Sultan had a narrow escape from death in the evening of Sept. 11, 1995, when his four-wheel drive vehicle was rammed from behind by a speeding car in Salalah, where he likes to spend the summer. He had stopped the car in the middle of the road and walked over to listen to the complaints of a shepherd.

Then came the crash. Qaboos survived. But in the back of the car, his deputy premier for economics and finance Qais Al Zawawi was killed. Qais' elder brother Omar, sitting next to him, was seriously wounded. In the front seat next to the sultan was Air Marshal Sir Erik Bennett, then 67, who was also seriously injured.

An unmarried man, Bennett has been very close to Qaboos for years. He had begun in Oman in the early 1970s as an officer helping Qaboos fight Marxist rebels in Dhofar. After the rebellion was crushed, he commanded the Omani air force. He had briefly served as an advisor to King Hussein of Jordan before moving to Oman.

Another British advisor of Sultan Qaboos is Timothy Landon, a former SAS officer who had fought in Dhofar. They were classmates at Sandhurst. Landon has been listed as "counsellor" at the Omani embassy in London. The Sultan still keeps high-ranking British army officers in the Omani army.

Background: Born on Nov. 18, 1940 in Salalah (in the southern province of Dhofar), Qaboos is eighth in the line of the Al Busaid dynasty, founded in 1741 by Sultan Ahmad Bin Said. He had a secluded childhood and his early education was at home under a private tutor, Hafez Al Ghassani.

At 18, Qaboos' father Sultan Said Bin Taimour sent him to England for further education at a private establishment in Suffolk, where he spent two years. In 1960 he entered the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst for a two-year infantry course. Then he joined the 1st Battalion, the Cameronians (or the Scottish Rifles), stationed in West Germany where he spent six months receiving staff training. After a further two-year course in local government in England, he returned to Oman in December 1964.

Qaboos remained in Salalah for the next few years, studying Islam and Arabic in seclusion at the insistence of his father who disapproved of his Anglophile tendencies. However, his mother smuggled him copies of "The Times" and a few friends were eventually allowed to meet him and play bridge. One of them was Timothy Landon, then serving as an SAS officer fighting the Dhofari rebels.

After ousting his father in July 1970, Sultan Qaboos abolished many restrictions and launched development projects to raise the people's standard of living. When he took over, Oman only had 10 km of paved roads, 500 telephones and three schools (see DT).

Apart from speeding up development, Qaboos' major priority was to end the rebellion in Dhofar, which had been raging since the early 1960s. A successful military campaign was carried out, aided by his British advisors and the Shah's Iranian forces. The Sultan announced the defeat of the rebels on Dec.11, 1975. Then he established the Development Council, the Financial Affairs Council, the Central Bank and other institutions, with the first five-year development plan launched in 1976.

This was followed by the moderately successful second and third five-year plans, for 1981-85 and 1986-90, the fourth plan (1991-95), the fifth (1996-2000), and the sixth (2001-2005).

While maintaining a conservative outlook in general, the Sultan openly encourages family planning and the emancipation of women. He has been a strong advocate of education for both sexes, which has given a chance for Omani women to get jobs. There are now many Omani women in professional positions and in the government, something rare in most GCC states.

Qaboos says the cultural and historic as well as strategic factors in the region do not permit a Western-style democracy. He insists that, gradually, a democracy would evolve from the Shura.

The Sultan was quoted as saying in 1995 that "...we are not going to import a Western form of democracy: we are developing a truly Omani democracy which will give our people their voice and preserve our religious and cultural traditions... One cannot govern fairly - and certainly not honourably - if one is not in tune with one's people. The Majlis and my annual meet-the-people tours admirably provide me with this requirement".

To Sultan Qaboos, nationality, religion, race or sect do not matter if one can find the right way to approach him. His personal tastes are almost European, and he is a lover of classical Western music - particularly of Mozart, Haydn and Brahms. He is acquainted with Indian-born Jewish maestro Zubin Mehta, who in the summer of 1986 was brought in with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra to conduct a concert. He invites philharmonic orchestras to play in his personal concert hall on his birthdays.

From Dec. 30, 1995 to Jan. 3, 1996, the Sultan spent over $800,000 to bring the entire BBC Philharmonic Orchestra to perform for the 25th anniversary of his coup. He had the 101-member orchestra flown to Oman in his personal jet and put them in a Muscat hotel described by one of the musicians as "staggering in its luxury". He showered them with gifts, including $12,000 wrist watches for conductors Pascal Tortelier and Edward Downes, and jewelry for pianist Kathryn Stott. The orchestra made a recording of Oman's national anthem. (The previous recording was destroyed 40 years earlier when Sultan Said accidentally sat on it).

Qaboos was once encouraged to marry King Hussein's daughter but for domestic reasons he opted to wed his first cousin Nawal Bint Tariq Bin Taimour. He separated from Nawal later and had no children - a cause of serious concern to members of the ruling family and Oman's external friends.

Perhaps Qaboos is worried that, if he nominates an heir from among his relatives, this could cause splits within the ruling family. He used to give the impression that his uncle, Sayyid Fahr Bin Taimour, then deputy premier for security and defence, might be the only person logically able to take over in the event of his death. But Sayyid Fahr died on Nov. 2, 1996.

The sultan is an introspective figure and a man of strong composure, well informed and with refined tastes. He is an accomplished pilot, like the late King Hussein, and has an adventurous streak. Occasionally he surprises Omani air traffic controllers by flying a jet-fighter upside down at high speed and low altitude near the airport.
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Publication:APS Review Gas Market Trends
Date:Feb 18, 2002
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