BEIRUT — Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman, who in nearly five decades in power transformed his Persian Gulf kingdom from an isolated enclave into a developed nation known for brokering quiet talks between global foes, has died, the Omani government announced early Saturday. He was 79.
The announcement did not mention the cause, but Sultan Qaboos had been receiving treatment in Europe for cancer since at least 2014.
His decades as an absolute monarch who used oil wealth to pull his country from poverty made him a towering figure at home, with roads, a port, a university, a sports stadium, and other facilities bearing his name. Internationally, as the longest-serving leader in the Arab world, he used Oman’s place in a turbulent region, next to one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, to become a discreet but essential diplomatic player.
In a region rife with sectarianism, political divides, and foreign interference, the soft-spoken, Sultan Qaboos championed a foreign policy of independence and nonalignment. He became a rare leader who maintained ties with a wide range of powers that hated one another, including Iran, Israel, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and the Houthi rebels in Yemen.
That gave Oman a role akin to a Middle Eastern Switzerland, where foes battling each other elsewhere could meet for quiet talks. In 2011, Sultan Qaboos intervened to free three American hikers who had been jailed in Iran on espionage charges, paying a ransom of $500,000 per person.
A few years later, he brought the two foes together again by hosting covert talks between Iran and the Obama administration that paved the way for an international agreement over Iran’s nuclear program.
Sultan Qaboos, unmarried for most of his life, had no children and did not publicly name or groom a successor. The matter is likely to be decided by Oman’s official succession process.
According to the country’s Basic Law, upon the sultan’s death a family council convenes to choose his successor. If it cannot agree within a few days, it opens an envelope containing the name of the sultan’s chosen successor, handwritten by him.
Many Omanis and foreign experts expect the new sultan to be one of three of his cousins. It remains unclear to what extent a new sultan would change Sultan Qaboos’s domestic and foreign policies.
Sultan Qaboos came to power at age 29 in 1970 in a bloodless coup aided by the British against his father, putting himself at the helm of a poor, isolated nation locked in a civil war with rebels in the south.
Tapping the kingdom’s newfound oil wealth, he subdued the rebels with a combination of military force and development projects, including building roads, hospitals, schools, and other modern infrastructure across the country. The effort was so successful that in 2010, the United Nations ranked Oman first in the world in advancement up the Human Development Index over the previous 40 years, ahead of China.
That made Sultan Qaboos a titanic figure in his country of 4.6 million, located on the southeastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula and across the Strait of Hormuz from Iran. While sultan, he also held other offices at times, including prime minister, governor of the central bank, and minister of finance, defense, and foreign affairs.
The first day of his reign, July 23, is a holiday called Renaissance Day. His birthday, Nov. 18, is Oman’s National Day.
Although economic stagnation fueled by low oil prices marred his later years and his people’s political rights remained limited, Western diplomats marveled at the consistency of his foreign policy. In 2007, he spelled it out in a public statement.
“We work for construction and development at home, and for friendship and peace, justice, and harmony, coexistence and understanding, and positive constructive dialogue abroad,” he wrote. “That is how we began, that is how we are today, and that, with God’s permission, is how we shall continue to be.”
“The sultan’s biggest achievement was putting his country on a path to development,” said J.E. Peterson, a former historian of the Royal Armed Forces in Muscat and an expert on Persian Gulf affairs. “Sultan Qaboos set in progress a plan for development, created a government where none had existed before, and created a foreign policy.”
Bucking the Arab consensus, he supported talks between Egypt and Israel that led to a peace treaty in 1979, the first between Israel and an Arab state.
After the Islamic Revolution in Iran that same year, he tasked the Omani ambassador to Tehran with getting to know the country’s new rulers. That led to a sit-down with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who received assurances that Oman would maintain relations with the Islamic Republic, regardless of the sultanate’s alliances with Western powers.
Sultan Qaboos opened lines with China and the Soviet Union, and in 1994 Oman welcomed Yitzhak Rabin, making it the first Persian Gulf state to receive an Israeli prime minister. Two years later, it received another one, Shimon Peres.
“Sultan Qaboos has kept these ties to almost everyone open, and that is no mean feat in this region,” said Calvin Allen, a retired history professor at Shenandoah University in Virginia who has written extensively about Oman.
Oman’s broad network of international relationships often made Sultan Qaboos a useful friend for the United States.
In 2013, he hosted American and Iranian representatives at his private villas on the Omani coast for talks that led to official negotiations over Tehran’s nuclear program. Those talks resulted in a landmark agreement between Iran, the United States, and other international powers in 2015, although President Trump withdrew the United States from the agreement three years later.
In Oman, Sultan Qaboos was beloved for his focus on economic development during the early decades of is rule — while foreigners noted that he oversaw an absolute, if not particularly brutal, police state.
On paper, he broadened the opportunities for citizens to participate in government. He issued Oman’s first constitution in 1996, which institutionalized a consultative assembly and granted universal suffrage to all citizens over 21. But he remained the sovereign center of the state. Political parties and unauthorized public gatherings were banned and critical news outlets shut down.
For many decades, he took an annual “meet the people tour” of his country. A visiting American military commander who met him in 2008 noted that Sultan Qaboos seemed to be “in good health and cheerful.” But the sultan said running the country kept him from his favorite activities, such as reading books. A music lover, he was said to play the lute and the pipe organ and to compose his own music. He founded a royal symphony orchestra.
In 2011, as the Arab Spring uprisings swept across the Middle East, thousands of Omanis joined in, taking to the streets to rally against the lack of jobs — but not against the sultan or Oman’s system of rule.
Security forces killed two protesters, and Sultan Qaboos quelled the demonstrations with promises to create jobs and boost salaries and pensions. Government spending skyrocketed in the next few years, leaving Oman vulnerable when the global oil price crashed in 2014. It has run budget deficits every year since, creating economic pressures that the new sultan will have to address.