In the aftermath of the recent passing of the late sultan of Oman Qaboos bin Said, there is now time to undertake a thorough analysis of his legacy after almost five decades of his rule. This should be both at the domestic level and at the level of the foreign policy of Oman in the period and its interaction with sub-regional, regional, and international actors.
This article will focus on only one aspect of the late sultan Qaboos s legacy, namely his handling of what could be called the Dhofar Question, which, although being primarily a domestic issue, had its own sub-regional, regional, and international ramifications.
Historians agree that sultan Qaboos assumed power at a critical juncture in the history of Oman. The Sultanate was then amidst a fully-fledged civil war in the province of Dhofar. The rebels had formally declared that they aimed at achieving the independence of their province, meaning the dismembering of the Sultanate of Oman. In addition to its serious domestic implications, the war in Dhofar had its own sub-regional, regional, and international dimensions.
At the sub-regional level, the rebels in Dhofar were strongly and actively supported by the then Marxist-Leninist government in what was called the People s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen), either in an attempt to eventually merge with the province of Dhofar if the war there ended in the victory of the rebels and the separation of the province from the rest of Oman, or simply with a view to having the province as an ally of the struggle of South Yemen with its neighbouring conservative and pro-western countries in the Gulf region at the time.
At the regional level, and similar to what had happened in the war in Yemen between 1962 and 1967, the war in Dhofar was a stereotypical manifestation of the division in the Arab region since the early 1960s, what the late US political scientist Malcom Kerr called the “Arab Cold War”. This meant that the region could be divided between those countries belonging to what came to be called the “progressive,” or “revolutionary,” or occasionally “left-wing” camp, on the one hand, and those belonging to what came to be known as the “conservative,” or “moderate,” or occasionally “right-wing” camp on the other.
On the global level of analysis, the war in Dhofar was simply one more of the proxy wars that were taking place in the Third World between the two competing camps of the western camp led by the US and the eastern camp led by the former Soviet Union at the time.
The war was a turbulent legacy that the new sultan had to deal with. Historians differ over the way he brought an end to the war in Dhofar with a favourable outcome for the government of Oman, particularly his dependence on the military involvement of the Iranian armed forces during the rule of the former shah of Iran, Mohamed Reza Pahlavi, which supported Omani government troops. There was a similar dependence on British military involvement, mainly in terms of the provision of military experts and their presence on the battlefield, as well as the flow of military equipment and ammunition to Omani government troops.
Yet, in order to be objective, one has to recall that the conflict was taking place in the broader context of the Cold War between the capitalist and communist camps and at a time when the governments of the Arab states in the Gulf were clearly allying themselves with the western camp for a number of economic and geo-political as well as strategic and even probably ideological reasons.
In addition, Iran at the time was widely perceived and explicitly described as the West s “policeman” in the Gulf region. It was in this context that the Omani leadership considered it only logical to seek military support from Iran and the UK to put down a rebellion supported by the then Marxist government in pro-Soviet South Yemen and through it the former Soviet camp in its entirety.
But this is only part of the story of the handling of the Dhofar question, as the end of the war in the 1970s in favour of the Muscat government was not the end of the story.
At one level, the late sultan clearly meant to attach more attention to the socio-economic developmental needs of the Dhofar province and its inhabitants. He realised that the disregard by the previous governments of Oman of the needs of the people of the Dhofar province had been one of the reasons for the revolt in the first place as well as for the sympathy of substantial segments of the population of the province with the rebels during the war.
As a result, he was keen to personally supervise the giving of priority by successive Omani governments to both the living as well as the developmental needs of the people of Dhofar in order to enable a process of the smooth and successful integration of the province into the overall process of the equitable renaissance and development that Oman has witnessed under the rule of the late sultan.
He also successfully integrated some of the leaders of the rebels in the Dhofar war into the political elite of Oman. This policy went far beyond the hopes and advice of some who were close to the late sultan, as their maximum aspiration earlier had been to pardon the leaders of the revolt in Dhofar.
But the late sultan in fact appointed some of those leaders, after pardoning them, as ministers or ambassadors, thus wisely making use of their intellectual sophistication and expertise as well as the advanced political and cultural awareness of these figures to better serve the national interests of the Sultanate of Oman and its people.