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India Narrative Special: Gandhi Peace Prize for Oman’s former ruler Sultan Qabous, honours a proud legacy

Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke of Qabous as a “beacon of peace for our region and the world”; more importantly, he recalled him as “a true friend of India” who shaped the “strategic partnership” between the two countries

On 22 March, the jury of India’s prestigious Gandhi Peace Prize announced that the award for 2019 would be conferred on Sultan Qabous bin Said, the former ruler of Oman who passed away on 10 January 2020. The citation applauded the sultan’s role in the comprehensive social, economic and political transformation of his country through non-violent means and using Gandhian methods. It also noted the sultan’s policies of “moderation and mediation” and his peace efforts in addressing regional disputes. The citation particularly recalled the sultan’s role as the “architect” of the strategic partnership between India and Oman.

Qabous, born in 1940, ascended the Omani throne in July 1970 through a bloodless coup that overthrew his father, Sultan Said bin Taimur, with the help of British intelligence, and ushered in an era of extraordinary change in the country. Qabous inherited a country that had been riven with internecine conflicts between domestic rivals for national leadership, as also a long-drawn insurgency in the south of the country – the Dhofar rebellion – that began in 1962 and continued till 1976, when it was finally put down with help of Iranian and Jordanian troops, and British soldiers and air force.

The new Sultan changed the name of his country from “Muscat and Oman” to the “Sultanate of Oman”, emphasising the unity of the nation made up of diverse peoples — Muslims who are Sunni, Shia and Ibadi (the unique native Muslim community of Oman that pre-dates the Sunni-Shia divide and the four schools of Sunni Islam), besides Hindus from India.

Again, many of Oman’s communities had originally came from Sindh, Baluchistan, Iran, Najd in Saudi Arabia, and Kutch. From Sindh, we have a Muslim community, the Lawati, that perhaps originated in Hejaz. It speaks a language that is very akin to Kutchi, and has provided Oman with several urbane ministers and business persons whose defining characteristic is a deep affection for Indian culture.

Kutchis have been living in Oman for about a thousand years, functioning at the centre of a lucrative trade that saw the export from Oman of dates, horses and later, pearls from the region, and the import from India of foodstuffs, textiles and jewellery from India. These items dominate India’s export basket to the Gulf to this day.

Omani nationhood has been achieved through carefully crafted policies of all-round accommodation and opportunity, along with the insistence that faith be a matter of personal conviction, even as the public space is made available for celebrations of festivals of all communities.

Indian communities

India and Oman have been tied historically and civilisationally by the waters of the Arabian Sea that the ancestors of the two peoples traversed in dhows, first made from teak planks that were stitched together with coir rope, both items coming from Malabar. Each oceanic voyage was multi-communal – it carried Malabari, Omani, Arab and Persian seamen; businessmen from Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula, Sindh and Kutch, and men of faith, science and philosophy from all littoral spaces.

The Omani town of Sur, where the Arabian Peninsula juts into the sea and is closest to Kutch, has, after several Franco-Italian archaeological expeditions in the 1980s, revealed cereals, cotton shreds and items of gracious living – an ivory comb and a necklace – from Harappa, indicating an interaction between South Asia and the Arabian Peninsula that has continued uninterrupted over four millennia.

Nearer our times, from the early nineteenth century most of the Gulf was governed from India, with officials – British and Indian – manning the Residencies and Agencies in different Gulf towns, with a prominent Residency being in Muscat itself. In this period, Indian merchants from Sindh and Kutch became a significant part of the local economic and social community. The most prominent Kutchi family is the Khimji family. Kanakbhai Khimji, from the third generation of the business group, Khimji Ramdas, was designated the “Sheikh” of the Hindu community of Oman, with several hundred Indian families being given Omani nationality by Sultan Qabous.

As in other Gulf countries, Indians in Oman constitute the largest expatriate community by far, numbering around 700,000. But what is unique is the presence of a large number of professionals in the community – Oman has several hundred Indian CEOs, besides several thousand doctors, engineers, architects, managers, accountants and academics. Some major Indian companies, such as Larsen and Toubro and Shapoorji Pallonji, have been active in Oman for over four decades.

National development

Looking today at Oman’s development and the beauty of its urban landscape, it is difficult to recall how truly different it was just a few decades ago. The novel, Celestial Bodies, by the Omani writer Jokha al-Harithi, that won the International Booker prize in 2019, paints a stark and even painful picture of Omani life that consisted of very poor infrastructure, absence of most domestic facilities, and a very rudimentary life-style that included superstition, polygamy, widespread disease, domestic violence and even slavery.

The sultan has created a modern country, with some of the world’s best infrastructure and education and health facilities, but one that continues to celebrate it history and culture – archaeological findings have been carefully preserved on site and in well-stocked museums, and old forts and water canals have been lovingly restored. Every Omani town has beautiful gardens and water fountains and attractive street lighting.

Sultan Qabous was particularly sensitive about urban landscaping: he insisted that all buildings reflect local tradition and have light, even neutral colours – white, cream or pastel. For instance, the plans for the Indian embassy were not approved for several months since we had proposed using red sandstone in our façade; the problem was resolved when we agreed to use light pink sandstone instead! The capital Muscat, with its natural beauty embellished by world-class urban planning, has frequently received awards as the most attractive city in Asia.

Wise counsel in West Asia

The citation recognises Sultan’s Qabous’ extraordinary role in domestic and regional affairs over fifty years. A larger-than-life personality at home, he was a relatively low-key and soft-spoken presence on the West Asian stage that was dominated for many years by Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, Kings Fahd and Abdulla of Saudi Arabia, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, UAE’s Sheikh Zayed, and Jordan’s King Hussein. He also witnessed from the sidelines several cataclysmic events in the region – the 1973 war between Egypt and Israel, the Iran-Iraq war, the “global jihad” in Afghanistan, Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait and the First Gulf War, and then the events of 9/11 and the US-led attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq.

Throughout this traumatic period, Qabous remained a behind-the-scenes counsellor, growing in personal stature as the region sank into confrontations and conflict. Despite being surrounded by egoistical Arab potentates, Qabous sought no glory for himself, but gave sage counsel, often to unreceptive ears, since his thinking was usually well ahead of its time.

When an Indian leader, for instance, attempted to explain to him the rationale behind India’s opening of diplomatic ties with Israel in 1992, the wise sultan said India was twenty years too late – establishing such ties two decades earlier, when India’s global prestige was at its peak, would have enabled it to play an effective role in promoting peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Well before other leaders – Arab and Israeli – he believed that West Asian peace depended on Israel accepting that it was an integral part of West Asia’s geography and its regional security landscape. Thus, at a time when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was under pressure at home, was disliked by most Arabs, and was threatening Iran with military assault, Qabous invited him to Muscat in October 2018.

While details of the Qabous-Netanyahu conversations are not available, it would be fair to surmise that he would have counselled the Israeli leader on the advantages of restraint and also undertaken to convey Israeli messages to Iran.

Regional peace

Qabous’ greatest diplomatic achievement was also one where he sought no publicity or applause – the first interactions in Oman between US and Iranian delegations in 2013 that prepared the way for the substantial ‘P5+1’ dialogue with Iran that led to the nuclear agreement in 2015. While the US and much of West Asia were harbouring deep misgivings about Iran’s “hegemonic” intentions in the region, Oman had maintained close ties with the Islamic Republic and thus could be an effective interlocutor to promote a peace process.

The early discussions in Muscat took place at a time of a deep US-Iran divide and strong hostility to any accommodation with Iran in Tel Aviv and many Arab capitals, besides powerful rightwing elements in the US itself. The several rounds of dialogue in Oman remained secret over several months and the discussants would certainly have benefited from the patient advice of the Omani sultan.

Qabous had no patience with intra-Arab feuds that erupt periodically and leave a trail of bitterness even when they resolved. Thus, the sultan ensured that Oman neither joined the Saudi-led war on Yemen in 2015 nor supported the diplomatic and economic blockade of Qatar initiated from June 2017 by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt that lasted till January this year. Instead, Qabous opened Oman’s ports and airports for travel and supplies to the beleaguered Gulf sheikhdom, earning the gratitude of the Qatari ruler and his people.

Qabous made several efforts to facilitate dialogue between the Saudis and Houthis, but could make little progress in the face of maximalist demands from the Saudi crown prince. Wisdom seems to have dawned belatedly in the kingdom when, after much pointless carnage, Saudi Arabia has recently put forward a peace plan.

“Strategic partnership” with India

The citation for the Gandhi Peace Prize is accompanied by a thoughtful tribute from Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Modi spoke of Qabous as a “beacon of peace for our region and the world”; more importantly, he recalled him as “a true friend of India” who shaped the “strategic partnership” between the two countries.

These remarks barely do justice to Qabous’ respect and affection for India. The sultan was deeply conscious of the historic and civilisational ties that have bonded the Indian and Omani people over several centuries. His first act after becoming sultan was to pay a private visit to Bombay in 1970 and pray at the grave of his grand-father, Sayyid Taimur, who had been exiled to India by the British in 1932 and had died in 1965. And, while the sultan had an official “Arab” garment as his ceremonial dress, he also adopted the Indian sherwani and fur cap as the other formal dress of the ruler.

But the sultan went beyond such external gestures and shaped a special place for India in his strategic vision. In 1993, after the end of the Cold War and the First Gulf War nearer home, Sultan Qabous recognised the need for a strategic partner to safeguard Oman’s security. He turned to India as the nation with which Oman had had long-standing economic and community-based ties, with the two countries enjoying a high degree of cultural comfort with each other. The modern “strategic partnership” would, in his view, establish firm security ties, with Oman offering India access to its ports along the Indian Ocean and the Strait of Hormuz.

To provide a solid economic foundation to the partnership, the sultan proposed that two high-value projects be executed by government companies, one in Oman and the other in India. Besides this, Indian and Omani private companies should set up a joint holding company to pursue projects in the two countries, as also in third countries.

It must be noted with regret that India just could not rise to this opportunity. It took over a decade for the joint venture fertiliser project to be completed at Sur, with the project being badly delayed by political disputes and name-calling in India, with vested interests making every effort to subvert the initiative. The project in India, the oil refinery at Bina in Madhya Pradesh, was in fact subverted by vested interests not wanting a new refinery in India, so that Oman had no choice but to withdraw from it. The private sector initiative went nowhere – the Indian companies simply conveyed that they just could not work with each other.

It is possible that, at some stage, Sultan Qabous realised that his vision for a real strategic partnership with India, that would yield advantages to both sides, was going nowhere: when I met the sultan at my farewell call after the completion of my ambassadorship and recalled the successful completion of the Sur project, Qabous ruefully remarked: “You took your time over it, didn’t you.”

Last days

Sultan Qabous’ last decade was difficult for him. He was totally ill-prepared for the surge of popular anger among young Omanis in the context of the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, when thousands of demonstrators came on to the streets to complain about unemployment, low wages, inflation and corruption. They set major buildings on fire and some even took bullets from security personnel. These events were truly shocking for the monarch, who had viewed himself as the caring father-figure and had not realised how alienated from him some sections of his people had become.

His response seems to have been panicky and not thought through: most cabinet ministers and senior officials were abruptly dismissed, many with the highest reputation for rectitude and record of service. Massive high-cost doles were proffered to the agitators, outflows the state could ill-afford. Some changes were affected in the political system, but they stopped well-short of real reform and genuine popular participation in governance. Though the demonstrations petered out, the earlier dynamism of the monarch was no longer apparent.

To compound Qabous’ problems, he was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2014, which turned terminal in December 2019 and led to his death a few weeks later.

As the monarch passed into the sunset, there was a surge of sorrow across the country as the Omanis mourned the departure of the colossus who had personally reshaped their lives and left with them the promise of a happy and successful tomorrow. India joined its sorrowing cousins across the waters and declared national mourning.

The Gandhi Peace Prize is an appropriate recognition of the long-reigning sultan who deeply cherished India and its people.

(The author is a former Indian ambassador to Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates)