40 years ago today, on 23 July 1970, Qaboos bin Said Al Said seized power from his father, Said bin Taimur, in what was then the Sultanate of Muscat & Oman. He hasn't let go since. He later shyly referred to it as “the event” in an interview he gave to Foreign Affairs magazine in 1997, and such events do happen from time to time in the region – it was a similar story in Qatar in June 1995 when Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani deposed his father while the old man was on holiday.
Qaboos has ruled with an unusually tight grip on power, even for the Gulf. There is no anointed heir – perhaps for fear that they will try and grab power too early as well – and as well as being Sultan he is prime minister, defence minister and finance minister.
There is a very shaky succession policy. According to articles 5 and 6 of the country’s constitution, the decision on which male heir to pick falls to the Ruling Family Council, but if they can’t agree the person named by the previous Sultan in a letter he will have left behind will take power. Which might be fine if Qaboos (who has no children) hadn’t written down two names in two different letters.
But that’s a problem for the future. For now the country looks immeasurably better than it did when Qaboos came to power. People have swarmed from the countryside to the towns and cities, they live far longer, are far better educated, and their access to healthcare has taken a quantum leap forward.
That all seems to fit in with the promise he made to Omanis when he seized power to “transform your life into a prosperous one with a bright future”.
But he also promised to “abolish all the unnecessary restrictions on your lives and activities” and here the story is less impressive.
In March, the Omani government confiscated banned books – including poetry, novels and books on Christianity and Islam - at the Muscat International Book Fair and has a blacklist of banned books and writers according to the Arab Network for Human Rights Information.
The International Freedom of Expression Exchange reported on 31 March that the Omani government has attempted to silence journalists, human rights activists and poets by denying them media access.
As with most dictatorial regimes, their actions sometimes border on farcical. On 21 April 2009, Ali Al Zwaidi, a website moderator, was given a 10-day suspended prison sentence and a fine for posting an allegedly confidential government document online. The document was a directive from the Council of Ministers to the Information Minister instructing him to restrict the public’s freedom to criticise government officials.