Not one UK national newspaper has described Sultan Qaboos as a dictator, despite his being the Middle East’s longest-serving autocrat, having taken power in 1970. Qaboos’ half century in power was more than twice as long as Saddam Hussein’s 24-year-rule in Iraq and even surpassed Muammar Gaddafi’s 42 years in Libya.
Qaboos acted as Oman’s prime minister, defence minister, finance minister, foreign minister and head of the judiciary. If the Sultan had been as popular as some commentators claim, then he could have successfully run for office. Yet he was never elected by the people of Oman. Instead, he ruled by decree with absolute power for 50 years, suppressing all opposition.
British journalists have, however, preferred to emphasise the alleged popularity of Qaboos and repeat sympathetic lines from UK officials who have gone to extraordinary lengths to praise the dead dictator and support his unelected successor, his cousin Haitham.
Few media reports even cited the most obvious sources on Oman — human rights organisations. Amnesty International, for example, summarises Oman in these terms: “The authorities continued to unduly restrict freedom of expression by arresting, detaining and harassing activists and government critics. A new penal code contained harsh penalties for the peaceful exercise of a range of human rights. Women continued to face discrimination in law and practice”.
Homages to the sultan
The day after Qaboos died, British flags on government buildings across the UK were flown at half mast to commemorate him. A day later, prime minister Boris Johnson released a statement. He said he was “deeply saddened”, describing Qaboos as “an exceptionally wise and respected leader, who will be missed enormously”. The UK prime minister even dropped everything to personally rush to Oman.
He was joined by an array of senior British figures — defence secretary Ben Wallace, the head of the military, General Sir Nick Carter, and Prince Charles, the heir to the throne, all made their own trips to Muscat, Oman’s capital. Prince Charles found the time despite being embroiled in his own royal crisis following his second son’s announcement that he wanted to step down from “senior” status in the House of Windsor.
Those high-level visits and lowering of flags were remarkable acts of commemoration by the British state — which claims to support democracy and human rights abroad — for a foreign autocrat.
When similar scenes occurred in 2015 after the death of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, the UK government at least faced a backlash in sections of the press. This time, however, British journalists were unwilling to scrutinise official eulogies for Qaboos, despite Johnson’s Conservative Party manifesto claiming last month that it would champion “our alliances with like-minded democracies” — which Oman clearly is not.
The Guardian and the BBC, which present themselves as the UK’s most independent news outlets, have been particularly keen to portray Qaboos as a much-loved and legitimate ruler of Oman.
The Guardian described the undemocratic process of selecting a new dictator as a “baroque” affair that followed an “elaborate set of rules”. In fact, the process involved the Sultan writing the name of his anointed heir in a series of letters that were opened and obeyed upon his death.
The BBC ran an article online titled “Tributes pour in as Oman mourns Sultan Qaboos”. It asserted: “Widely seen as popular, Qaboos set Oman on a path to development after coming to power in a bloodless coup in 1970.”
The BBC’s uncritical coverage is perhaps unsurprising since Oman is a logistical hub for one of the four short-wave transmitters it uses globally to air Foreign Office-subsidised World Service radio programmes in 16 languages. As well as hosting such British soft power facilities, Oman also houses a network of UK military and intelligence bases.
The themes about the “popularity” of Qaboos, his benign development of Oman, and the “bloodless” manner in which he came to power, have been repeated across the UK media. The reality is somewhat different.
What the British are not saying about Oman
Qaboos owed his throne to a palace coup backed by Britain in 1970. By then, an armed left-wing revolution against Qaboos’ father, Sultan Said bin Taimur, was on the verge of victory. The revolution, which had a strong feminist ethos, was becoming too much to contain for the British military supporting Taimur. So the UK decided to remove him, sending soldiers to his palace where they shot Taimur three times, and installed the Sandhurst-trained Qaboos on the throne. The British hoped that a change of sultan would thwart more revolutionary demands.
Although some revolutionaries gave up arms after Qaboos became sultan, others continued fighting for many more years, despite increasing repression. The Shah of Iran, another UK-backed autocrat in the region, sent military units to support Qaboos in 1974, and by 1976, Oman’s information ministry claimed the revolution was over.
However, there was still concern about armed resistance and Qaboos paid a British mercenary company Keenie Meenie Services (KMS Ltd) to set up and run the sultan’s special forces. This was an elite counter-insurgency unit modelled on the SAS and based at Zeek in Dhufar, the most rebellious part of the country.
In the late 1980s, almost 20 years into Qaboos’ reign, this unit staged Operation Thalib, a raid on an opposition arms cache that intercepted “a complete set of equipment with which to start a revolution”, a senior KMS mercenary wrote later.
Although Qaboos’ has been praised by journalists for developing Oman, the sultan’s internal policies were often not as progressive as many assume. While he lifted his father’s ban on female education upon coming to power in 1970, this reform was not the groundbreaking move it was presented as.
Women in the main revolutionary opposition group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arabian Gulf, were already running schools for girls in areas under its control, raising Omanis’ expectations about what services a state should provide. By contrast, after taking power, Qaboos used Oman’s schools to foster a cult of personality in which Omanis learnt to refer to him as Abunah, our father.
In 1991, with the leftist armed struggle almost completely extinguished, Qaboos allowed the first elections for a Consultative Assembly. However, political parties were banned and candidates could only run as independents, having to be vetted by Oman’s security agencies. If elected, they had no real power.
From 1990 onwards, Omanis faced increased restrictions on their freedom of assembly and expression. This triggered a plot by activists linked to the Muslim Brotherhood to overthrow Qaboos and his British advisers, which was uncovered in 1994 and led to hundreds of arrests.
Many Omanis believe that it was in response to this attempted coup that Qaboos introduced a new legal code in 1996, setting out a constitution with hereditary succession plans that allowed Qaboos to secretly select his heir in the event of his death.
Unrest continued below the surface and in 2004, members of the Ibadi, Oman’s main religious group, were arrested and held incommunicado for allegedly conspiring against Qaboos. When their supporters protested at their ill treatment, they too were arrested.
The 2000s also saw Oman’s economy struggle, with the sultan building palaces and buying yachts while unemployment persisted. When Omanis took to the streets to demand an end to corruption and mismanagement during the “Arab Spring” of 2011, the army responded to a huge sit-in in the northern city of Sohar by killing at least two protesters and arresting 800 others, including one of the authors of this article.
In 2012, thousands of oil field workers went on strike to demand better employment rights. Hundreds of them were sacked and many were arrested. One of the authors of this piece decided to hold a separate protest in Muscat, to highlight how Qaboos was spending huge amounts of money flying horses to Britain for the queen’s jubilee.
His protest was surrounded by thousands of riot police and he was later arrested, tortured and charged with “insulting the sultan”. The harassment continued throughout the following year and by 2014, he had to flee Oman and claimed asylum in Britain. In 2016, a British judge granted him refugee status in the UK, finding that he “would be at real risk on return to Oman because of his political opinion”.
A ‘culture of silence and fear’
While some argue that Qaboos’ regime was not as repressive as other Gulf states, it was particularly skilful at stifling dissent and was subject to minimal UK, or international media scrutiny.
The UN Special Rapporteur on peaceful assembly visited Oman in 2014 and noted: “From my meetings with civil society, victims and activists, I got the distinct impression of a pervasive culture of silence and fear affecting anyone who wants to speak and work for reforms in Oman.”
According to Taimour Lay, a British human rights barrister who was monitoring the closure of Omani newspaper Al Zaman and the trial of its journalists in 2016, a US diplomat in the country told him: “I used to serve in Riyadh and I’m telling you people feel free to speak more openly about politics in Saudi than they do here in Muscat. The sultan and the succession are just untouchable.”
Repression in Oman, when it is acknowledged at all in media reports, is regularly downplayed in favour of highlighting the economic development that Qaboos brought to Oman. Qaboos benefited from newly discovered oil fields early in his reign and spent some of the proceeds on infrastructure projects such as roads and hospitals.
However, the regime was not properly held accountable for how it spent this wealth, or on whether Omanis obtained a fair deal under the dictator. The British oil firm BP owns a 60% stake in what it calls Oman’s “giant Khazzan gas field” — a very high proportion by international standards, which leaves the Omani state with just 40%.
Oman spends more per capita on its military than most other states in the Middle East. Faced with no hostile neighbours, a significant portion of the country’s wealth has supported keeping the Sultan in power. Some expenditure was kept hidden from Omanis, such as a plan in 1984 to build a “secret Omani emergency headquarters [sic]”, apparently for military communications, that declassified UK files say would have cost £300-million (worth almost £1-billion in today’s value), and been constructed by a British company.
In his last two years in power, Qaboos had focused his repression on the pro-autonomy movement in Musandam, the peninsula on Oman’s northernmost tip that juts out into the Straits of Hormuz, the narrow stretch of water the country shares with Iran through which a third of the world’s oil supplies are shipped. In 2018, six men from Musandam were sentenced to life imprisonment in Oman on what Amnesty International called “vague grounds of national security”.
The human rights group believes the men were engaged in “peaceful activism and campaigns for the rights of Musandam’s residents”, who were suffering from house demolitions. Less than six months after these trials finished, in February 2019, the British government held its first ever joint UK-Omani infantry training session in Musandam, named Exercise Jebel Storm.
Since Qaboos’ death was announced on 10 January 2020, several Omani exiles in the UK have received death threats and warnings not to criticise the late sultan. They have also not heard from anti-regime activists outside Muscat while armoured vehicles have been seen on the streets of the capital. The picture they have is very different than the false one presented by the British media to the public.