Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who modernised Oman, dies at 79

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said, the Mideast’s longest-ruling monarch who assumed power in 1970 and pulled his Arabian Sultanate into modernity while carefully balancing diplomatic ties between adversaries Iran and the United States (US), has died. He was 79.

The state-run Oman News Agency announced his death early yesterday on its official Twitter account.

The Sultan was believed to have been in poor health and travelled to Belgium for what the court described as a medical check-up last month.

The royal court declared three days of mourning.

The news agency mourned the death of the Sultan and praised the “towering renaissance” he had presided over. It said his “balanced policy” of mediating between rival camps in a volatile region had earned the world’s respect.

Under his reign, Oman became known as a welcoming tourist destination and a key Mideast interlocutor, helping the US free captives in Iran and Yemen and even hosting visits by Israeli officials while pushing back on their occupation of land Palestinians want for a future state.

“We do not have any conflicts and we do not put fuel on the fire when our opinion does not agree with someone,” Sultan Qaboos told a Kuwaiti newspaper in a rare interview in 2008.

The unmarried Sultan Qaboos had no children and did not publicly name an heir, a tradition among the ruling Al Said dynasty.

But within hours, Oman state television announced Haitham bin Tariq Al Said, who had served as the Sultanate’s culture minister, as the new Sultan.

How Oman will respond to pressures both external and internal in a nation Sultan Qaboos absolutely ruled for decades remains in question. “Maintaining this sort of equidistant type of relationship … is going to be put to the test,” said Gary A Grappo, a former US ambassador to Oman.

“Whoever that person is going to have an immensely, immensely difficult job. And overhanging all of that will be the sense that he’s not Qaboos because those are impossible shoes to fill.”

The sultan had been believed to be ill for some time, though authorities never disclosed what malady he faced.

Sultan of Oman Qaboos bin Said. PHOTOS: AP
Oman’s new Sultan Haitham bin Tariq Al Said, right, carries Sultan Qaboos’ coffin at Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat