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

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - 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 1 pm on Friday, the military and police had been called onto 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 treatment in Belgium but officials assured the public all was well and the sultan was recovering.

The prayer over the coffin of Sultan Qaboos. AFP / Oman TV

Oman's newly sworn-in Sultan Haitham bin Tariq Al Said carries the coffin of his cousin, the late Sultan Qaboos, during the funeral in Muscat, Oman. Reuters

Omanis bid farewell to their leader during the funeral of Sultan Qaboos. AFP / Oman TV

Members of the Omani military carry the coffin of Sultan Qaboos. AFP

Omanis take part in the funeral of Sultan Qaboos at the Grand Mosque in the capital Muscat. AFP

The coffin of Oman's Sultan Qaboos bin Said is carried to a mosque through the crowd in Muscat, Oman. Oman TV via AP

People attend the funeral of Oman's Sultan Qaboos bin Said at Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat. Oman TV via AP

Oman's newly sworn-in Sultan Haitham bin Tariq arrives to the Grand Mosque in the capital Muscat to take part in the funeral of Sultan Qaboos. AFP / Oman TV

A motorcade carries the body of Sultan Qaboos bin Said in Muscat. Oman TV via AP

A motorcade carries the body of Sultan Qaboos bin Said in Muscat. Oman TV via AP

Omanis gather in front of the Sultan Qaboos Mosque to perform the funeral prayer for the country's ruler Sultan Qaboos bin Said in Muscat, Oman. AFP

Omanis gather to enter the Sultan Qaboos Mosque to perform the funeral prayer. AFP

Omanis gather to enter the Sultan Qaboos Mosque to perform the funeral prayer. AFP

Omanis gather to enter the Sultan Qaboos Mosque to perform the funeral prayer. AFP

Omanis walk towards the Sultan Qaboos Mosque to perform the funeral prayer. AFP

The Omani flag is seen at half-mast in the capital Muscat. AFP

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On his return, people took to the streets of Muscat to honour of 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 4 am. 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 publically 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.

Oman's new sultan Haitham bin Tariq Al Said makes his first speech in front of the Royal Family Council in Muscat, Oman. Oman TV via AP

Oman's new sultan Haitham bin Tariq Al Said swears in at the Royal Family Council in Muscat, Oman. Oman TV via AP

Sayyid Haitham bin Tariq Al Said is seen while welcoming Britain's Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall at Bait Al Noor church in Muscat, Oman, in 2016. AP Photo

Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed is received by Sayyid Haitham bin Tariq Al Said, right, upon arriving in Muscat for an official visit in 2014. Ryan Carter / Crown Prince Court — Abu Dhabi

Sheikh Hazza bin Zayed, Vice Chairman of the Abu Dhabi Executive Council, right, stands for a photograph with Sayyid Haitham bin Tariq Al Said during the opening ceremony of the Louvre Abu Dhabi in 2017. Photo by Abdullah Al Junaibi

Sayyid Haitham bin Tariq al Said offers condolences to Sheikh Tahnoon bin Mohamed Al Nahyan, Ruler's Representative in Al Ain Region, on the passing of Sheikha Hessa bint Mohamed Al Nahyan, at Mushrif Palace in 2018. Hamad Al Kaabi / Crown Prince Court - Abu Dhabi

Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, UAE Minister of Culture and Knowledge Development, right, and Sayyid Haitham bin Tariq al Said attend the final day of Formula 1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in Shams Tower in 2016. Ryan Carter / Crown Prince Court - Abu Dhabi

Saudi Arabia's King Salman Bin Abdulaziz meets Haitham bin Tariq Al Said to receive condolences after one of his brothers, Saudi Prince Turki bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, passed away, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in 2016. Getty Images

Sayyid Haitham bin Tariq Al Said, center right, is seen next to Britain's Prince Charles while welcoming him and his wife, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, at Bait Al Noor church in Muscat. AP Photo

Sayyid Haitham bin Tariq Al Said receives Britain's Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, upon arrival in Muscat, Oman in 2019. EPA

Britain's Prince Harry is being welcomed by Sayyid Haitham Bin Tariq Al Said upon his arrival in Oman in 2014. AFP

Sayyid Haitham bin Tariq Al Said looks on during the Closing Ceremony at Al-Musannah Sports City on day nine of the 2nd Asian Beach Games Muscat 2010 in Muscat, Oman. Getty Images

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“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 neighbouring 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.

Unemployment, a youth bulge and dependence on dwindling oil supplies have been long term concerns for Omanis.

“In the last few years, let’s be honest, the Sultan was sick so there were a lot of problems, like unemployed people,” said Mr Al Amri.

“We need someone who is fresh and who is younger so change is good. 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 worshippers 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.

“The new sultan means new changes,” said Mr Al Amri, an administrator at Oman Football Association. “We need the new Sultan to make changes and he’s going to. So I think there’s always a sunny day after the storm. I would say the last few years were really stormy. It’s not going to be worse. That’s what I believe.”

Updated: January 11, 2020 09:19 PM

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