Oman’s long night: from rumour to reality as a nation learns of Sultan Qaboos’ death

As a beloved leader passes, Omanis look to the future with Haitham bin Tariq Al Said

Omanis gather to enter the Sultan Qaboos Mosque to perform the funeral prayer for the country's ruler Sultan Qaboos bin Said, in the Omani capital Muscat on January 11, 2020. Sultan Qaboos, the longest-reigning leader of the modern Arab world, has died at the age of 79, leaving Oman in search of a new ruler at a time of regional turmoil. / AFP / MOHAMMED MAHJOUB
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Mobile phone screens began lighting up before dawn, from stone homes in the remote fjords of the Musandam Peninsula to houses in dark forests of the southern Dhofar governorate.

A nation had gone to bed with uncertainty.

At 1pm on Friday, the military and police had been called to duty across the nation and people braced for bad news. Against a backdrop of regional tensions after strikes between Iran and the United States, and Tehran's downing of a passenger plane that killed 176 people last week, few expected the news to be the death of Sultan Qaboos.

The ruler returned last month from a short stay for treatment in Belgium but officials assured the public all was well and the sultan was recovering.

On his return, people took to the streets of Muscat to honour his health, as they did on his return from treatment in Germany in 2014.

Saif Al Muwali, 37, saw the first mummers of the Sultan’s death on social media at around 4am. Within minutes, he was sat in front of the television, blurry-eyed, with his wife and children.

Regular programming stopped and programming switched to the Quran. The news most feared had come to pass: Sultan Qaboos was dead.

“People heard things about the Sultan but it wasn’t real news and about a week and a half ago we heard that the sultan was good and everything was fine,” said Mr Al Muwali, an Arabic language instructor in Muscat.  “News like this was somewhat expected but we didn’t know when exactly it would happen.”

Sadness was tempered with concern about the future.

Sultan Qaboos had ruled since 1970, serving as prime minister, defence minister and finance minister. He was without children or brothers and had never publicly named a successor.

The sultan had written the name of his chosen heir and sealed it in envelopes to be opened only in the case of indecision.

The sealed envelope was opened hours after his death, naming his cousin Haitham bin Tariq Al Said as Oman’s next leader.

The quick and smooth transition came as a relief.

While Muscat is a sprawling coastal capital, in many ways it is still like a village. News travels quickly.

Saeed Al Amri, 27, heard of Sultan Qaboos' death on Friday from a friend who worked in the palace. Mr Al Amri was on vacation in Jeddah. His sadness, coupled with concern and worry, kept him awake until dawn.

"I think people were afraid in the last weeks because they didn't know the future, who is [to rule] after the sultan," said Mr Al Amri. "They were rumours that said the royal family wouldn't agree on someone or that some countries would interfere but, thanks to God, the new Sultan was chosen today [Saturday] and the royals all agreed on him."

Despite sadness, Mr Al Amri said he was optimistic about change ahead.

"The news, of course, is sad because Sultan Qaboos did amazing things for us and for Oman," he said. "But now it's time for change and I'm very optimistic. I think now is one of the best times to be young in Oman."

People crowded the motorway as the late sultan was carried from the Bait Al Barakat royal palace in Seeb to the Sultan Qaboos Mosque.

The funeral was closed to the public but people across the country offered prayers for the late sultan at local mosques through Saturday afternoon.

For Al Muhanad Al Badi, 28, an English teacher on the Batinah coast, the speeches by officials were a reassurance that Oman would maintain its policy of neutrality in a volatile region.

“I was relieved when I heard in the speech that they would follow the same path in terms of foreign policy,” said Mr Al Badi. “I was happy to hear that. Economic opportunities would be the second most important thing to me after not being involved in a war.”

Now, people look to the future.