Saturday, 28 November 2009

Sea, sand and cynicism: Britain and Oman

A couple of weekends ago I travelled out to Oman, to give a presentation to a small meeting on the fringe of a scarcely larger conference. I didn’t see much of the place – I was only there for 48 hours and travelled straight to the meeting venue, a luxurious but isolated hotel resort on the sea, where the only Omanis were on the staff. Stuck in the resort for the bulk of my time, all I really got to enjoy was summer in November – lovely for someone in England, but not exactly extraordinary, specially as I didn’t even manage to have a swim, enticing though the Arabian Sea looked.

So my exposure to anything really new was limited to the forty minute taxi drive back to the airport. At last I got to seem some of the landscape and it was certainly impressive: dun-coloured rock piled up into steep cliffs plunging down to the deep blue of the Sea. The thing that struck me most, however, was a song on the driver’s radio. It was in the traditional harmonic minor of Arab music, which gives it a lilt and a delicacy that appeal to me – we generally use the minor in Western music to conjure up sadness and melancholy, but in Arab music it can be joyful too.

‘This is good,’ I couldn’t help telling the driver.

‘You like our Omani music?’ he replied with clear pleasure. ‘This is for the national feast tomorrow. It is for Sultan Qaboos.’

Sultan Qaboos. Of course. Suddenly I realised that the word ‘Qaboos’ was returning a lot in the song. Now I’m told that the Sultan is pretty popular. He has brought prosperity to his nation, despite its relatively low oil reserves. That prosperity may not have been shared equitably, but it has at least been shared.

Certainly the Sultan is omnipresent. There were portraits all over the hotel complex. On the drive to the airport, I saw him smiling at us, with or without his wife, from the side of many of the buildings. The song itself in his honour lasted twice as long as most popular songs. Clearly, you can’t get enough adoration. Sincere or sycophantic, it’s difficult to tell: the gentleness of the regime doesn’t, I suspect, allow an opposition outspoken enough to say.

By a strange coincidence, soon after my return to England I heard a radio programme about the moment when Qaboos came to power in 1970. At the time, Britain was still a presence in the area. Officers from the British Army ran the armed forces, some of them on secondment, others directly employed by Oman as ‘contract officers’ – basically mercenaries. One of the latter was Colonel Hugh Oldman who held no less a position than Defence Minister under Sultan Said bin-Taymur.

Britain was worried about its commercial interests, particularly in the face of an insurgency in the South backed by Saudi Arabia. The Sultan was perceived as unable or unwilling to defend the British position in the region. There was a feeling that his son, Qaboos, might be a better bet.

Sultan Said was no fool. There was something of tradition for a Sultan to come to power by ousting his father, so it’s not surprising that he’d kept Qaboos under virtual house arrest for several years. But it wasn’t enough. On 23 July 1970, Qaboos struck. There was brief struggle in the palace, and Said’s reign was over, Qaboos’s beginning.

That easy success might seem suspicious. The BBC have found evidence that Colonel Oldman had put plans in place to slipstream in behind Qaboos if the coup was successful, and to support him with force if it ran into difficulties. What’s more, he had approval for these plans from London: documents making this clear were briefly published a few years ago, apparently in error, but have been locked since (you might almost think the government had something to hide).

So that cheerful song I heard in the taxi was in honour of an absolute ruler who owed his position to a coup against his own father. A benign ruler, maybe, but nonetheless not perhaps one whose route to power was the most edifying.

And isn’t it wonderful that Britain supported him? What a fitting tribute to our commitment to democratic principles. To say nothing of family values.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Qaboos, interestingly is homosexual, and more interestingly, homosexuality is banned in the Sultanate!