Nizwa, Oman, spring of 2015. I was circling the university car park looking for a space. The car park was packed. This wouldn’t have been unusual at 8 in the morning, but this was 4 in the afternoon. I wondered if there was some ceremony or conference going that I didn’t know about. The bewildered foreigner once again.
When I eventually stepped into my department’s offices, the Omani admin workers were all gathered in one room speaking excitedly in Arabic about something. One woman in the group appeared to be crying. I saw one of my Jordanian colleagues in the hall and asked what was going on. Full of ennui, she rolled her eyes and explained that on television the previous night Sultan Qaboos spoke to his nation from Germany to say that his cancer treatment went well and that he would be home soon. This broadcast created such a stir that people stayed at work the next day just to talk about it.
In the days that followed, Omani flags went up all over campus and throughout the small town on Nizwa. Large companies and banks hung posters and displays welcoming the Sultan back home. The great man’s image appearing gigantic showed him seated in full traditional clothes, an Omani boomerang-looking sword, the khanjar, his beard more white than grey.
It’s hard to imagine in our cynical times a country where its leader is genuinely adored and worshipped and where political satire is non-existent. Sultan Qaboos was rightly admired for taking his country from illiteracy and poor health to public education and modern hospitals, from dirt roads to highways. Above all else, while neighbouring countries have had to deal with wars and terrorist attacks, Oman has remained at peace.
These decades of peace have been in part circumstantial. Oman doesn’t have the abundance of gas and oil that its neighbours have and hasn’t been fought over or exploited by foreign interests. The country has also stayed out of the fray by the simple fact that it practices Ibadi Islam and is neither Sunni nor Shiite. In Western newspapers, Oman often appears on colourful maps as grey. Taking advantage of this neutral greyness, Sultan Qaboos often played the part of arbiter and intermediary in the region.
What Sultan Qaboos brought to his beloved country which cannot be denied him is the country’s reputation of holding to many of its traditions and at the same time being one of the most socially progressive societies in the Middle East. Oman has modernised, but even its capital Muscat does not have the commercial glitz found in Dubai, only a few hours’ drive away. Where I lived in the town of Nizwa, every Saturday morning the goat market is held and people from neighbouring villages come to barter and bid in ways their ancestors did centuries ago. But this is not a backward country by any means. Not only do the local women drive cars, they also hold public office and managerial positions. It still is a male-dominated culture and many of the laws and customs are discriminatory, but they’ve made huge advances under the paternal gaze of Sultan Qaboos.
Just over a week ago, this ‘father of the nation,’ who has been in charge for nearly 50 years, died peacefully at the age of 79.
When I departed Oman over four years ago now, I typed these thoughts into my journal: ‘It’s good I’m leaving now. I don’t wish to be in Oman when the much-loved Sultan passes away, leaving behind a country not only in mourning, but more worryingly, a country vulnerable to radical conservative takeover and upheaval.’
The people of Oman are in my thoughts today.