Omanis mark national day without their beloved monarch

Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said has been receiving medical treatment in Germany since July, and told his subjects earlier this month that he would be unable to return for the occasion, which falls on his birthday.

Omanis perform traditional dances at Qurum city centre mall in Muscat to mark the country's 44th annual National Day. Justin Vela / The National
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MUSCAT // For the first time in more than 40 years, Omanis marked National Day without their widely loved ruler leading the celebrations.

Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said has been receiving medical treatment in Germany since July, and told his subjects earlier this month that he would be unable to return for the occasion, which falls on his birthday.

Muscat was draped with flags and banners, there was a fireworks display, and cars drove in a jubilant procession along Qurum Beach as usual on Tuesday, but the annual military parade that Sultan Qaboos has traditionally overseen was cancelled.

Oman’s ruler released a video on November 5 in which he read out a speech to his people expressing regret that he would not return for National Day “for reasons you know”. However, Omanis such as Nasser, a 36-year-old taxi driver in Muscat, said they were confident that the sultan would be home eventually.

“Two, three weeks,” Nasser said, noting that the sultan had already been in the hospital for months. “He will return.”

Like most Omanis, Nasser had nothing but love for Sultan Qaboos, 74, a leader he described as a “good man”. The sultan came to power in 1970 after removing his father, whose policies were seen as corrupt and impeding Oman’s economic development.

Sultan Qaboos worked to modernise the country, focusing on building schools, hospitals and roads.

Reforms he introduced in 1994 granted women the right to vote and stand for public office, unprecedented in the Gulf region at the time, and introduced a written constitution.

Today, Oman is a quiet and peaceful state that maintains friendly ties with a wide range of countries. Omanis are proud of the sultan’s diplomatic efforts that, as Nasser pointed out, made the “connection” that allowed the United States and Iran to restart talks over Tehran’s controversial nuclear programme.

“Oman is a nation that has historically relied on trade, so it dealt with various other peoples,” said Bilal Saab of the Washington DC-based Atlantic Council, who recently met Omani officials in Muscat.

“You simply cannot trade and have external relations when you don’t have an open mind and tolerant approach, you have to appreciate the other,” Mr Saab said, describing how the sultan’s diplomatic abilities were a result of Oman’s geographic setting at the intersection of the Indian Ocean and Middle East.

Domestically, the country is stable. According to Omani political analyst Ahmed Ali Al Mukhaini, the sultan successfully created a balance in the country where religious, tribal and business leaders, along with members of the royal family, all have “interlocking interests” and no reason to consider agitating to alter the system.

“There’s been a balance. Any attempt to change this would create a loss. I can’t see any individual who would gain from rocking that balance,” Mr Mukhaini said.

Susan Mubarak, a well-known Omani blogger living in Salalah, said that the National Day celebrations were different with the sultan out of the country.

“He is much loved in Oman and no one in this country can really imagine Oman without him,” she said. “It’s a difficult time for Omanis. People are praying publicly for him to get better and come home.”

Before National Day there had been a debate in some parts of Omani society and among government officials about how to celebrate with the sultan away. Some groups thought the day should go forward as normal, others said the celebrations should be scaled back out of deference to the sultan’s ill health. Some Omanis also thought that the day might see some kind of surprise, that the sultan would perhaps return or address the country, but the video released earlier this month dispelled those hopes.

“The surprise we were expecting happened already,” said Mr Al Mukhaini, referring to the video.

“Inside Oman, it was almost as if we were pretending nothing was wrong,” Ms Mubarak said. She added that the celebrations this year were more patriotic than in the past.

“The past few months have been difficult for us. In a way, today, we are celebrating the sultan’s ‘recovery’ following his speech. Had he not given that brief speech, there probably would not have been much celebrating since none of us knew really how advanced his illness is. Seeing him was reassuring in a way.”

On the streets of Muscat, it was clear the National Day had become a celebration of hope for the sultan’s recovery.

Hassan, 32, and his two brothers attended the National Day festivities in matching red, white, and green-collared shirts, the colours of Oman’s flag. Embroidered in gold thread on the back was: “Oman’s letters likes me and I like Oman’s letters,” an example of Omanis’ love for their country and sense of humour.

Hassan admitted the celebrations were similar every year, and he would like to see more organised performances.

Still, he was not going to miss the festivities on a night when it seemed the entire city was on the streets. With his brothers and some friends, Hassan formed a convoy of cars and joined the crowds inching along the road between Qurum Beach and the Royal Opera House.

Amid the noise, joy and solidarity on display was also the kindness experienced so often in Oman. People called out to each other, even strangers, happy to be together. When a security truck needed to get through so the officers could direct the traffic, the cars moved quickly to one side.

Nearly every vehicle was adorned with an image of Sultan Qaboos.

“This is the celebration,” said Hassan. “You see it now.”