IN 2011, I was on a cruise ship sailing into port in Muscat. We had just crossed the Arabian Sea, an unnerving undertaking as there was a threat of piracy. We had a drill of what to do in case of attack (lie in the corridors, do not return to your cabin, because portholes are targets). We had sailed through the night without lights, guests taking their turn at the lookout. I was hugely relieved to see the blue dome of the Muttrah mosque between the dusty hills of Oman and the sea.
Oman was a haven in more ways than one. Sultan Qaboos, who died last Friday, transformed this poverty-stricken strip of desert into a prosperous modern state. One of the Sultan’s first acts was to abolish slavery. He developed Oman as an oil producer and spent the revenues well, on infrastructure, education, and healthcare. Qaboos was not a democrat. There was no separation of powers under his monarchy. Besides being head of state, he controlled finance, foreign affairs, and defence. Pro-democracy demonstrations were suppressed during the Arab Spring.
Qaboos took control during a bloodless coup in which he deposed his own father with British backing. His marriage to his cousin broke up early, and he had no children. But perhaps his most important contribution to this volatile region was to stay non-aligned. He managed to win the trust of both Iran and Saudi Arabia. He visited Israel. He brokered the secret talks between the United States and Iran which led to the international nuclear pact of 2015.
The dominant form of Islam in Oman is Obadism, which emerged out of early conflicts between rival interpretations of Islam. The original Obadis were puritanical, but they developed a tolerant pragmatism that has held them in good stead. Rather like the Quakers, though their roots are in rebellion, the historic part that they have played has been to promote peace and tolerance.
As I read through the obituaries of Qaboos, I was struck by how the photographic record often shows him in a listening pose. He was physically contained, a faint smile sometimes playing over his lips. He mostly resisted splurging money on vanity projects and enriching his nearest relatives. He was, perhaps, that rarest of things: a wise despot.
He reminds me that biblical language about justice and peace is not rooted in democracy, but in Messianic hope. Arguably, the wise despot comes rather closer to the biblical model of just rule than the dictatorship of the proletariat, or even the democratic will of the people. But wise despots die, and we can only pray for the Sultan’s successor. After all, as Churchill said in 1947: “Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms of government which have been tried from time to time.”