July 23, 1970
“Yesterday it was completely darkness and with the help of God, tomorrow will be a new dawn on Muscat, Oman and its people.”
His brown eyes filled with tears as he spoke softly about his Sultan. Unable to hold them back he reached for the tissue box on the table and dabbed his eyes discreetly. His sadness and sense of loss were so heavy and real that I could almost touch them. I had seen grief before, but never like this. No words were big enough to comfort him, no touch soft enough to ease his pain.
I remembered years before when my much loved grandfather had passed away and I struggled with one all-consuming question which would eat me up from inside: “Did he know how much I loved him? I should have told him every day. Why did I not tell him?” I would cry out. My mother had held me and whispered in my ear, “He knew, oh, he definitely knew!”
It now seemed the only reassurance I could offer my heart-broken friend. “He knew… he knew he was loved” was all I could say before my own eyes welled up.
How could I ever hope to explain to anyone from outside Oman, the depth of love and respect the Omani people felt for their nation’s father? Only when you had driven along the streets of Muscat, or walked through the alleyways in villages underneath flags and banners on National Day, could you begin to understand. Only when you had caught the tunes of the national anthem gracefully riding the breeze from a nearby school and watched an old fisherman stopping for a second, straightening his back while listening, and proudly place his right hand above his heart, would you feel what I felt.
“Before Sultan Qaboos we had nothing”, the old fisherman would tell me, as he recalled the hardship his family had lived through. “I couldn’t feed my family”, he told me embarrassed and explained how it had pained him to leave his wife and children behind while he undertook the journey abroad to look for work in a last attempt to provide for them. Years followed where he didn’t see his family or returned to Oman.
“Then, on July 23, 1970, the call came in a speech from Sultan Qaboos, for the sons of Oman to return and help rebuild the country”.
“…I promise you to proceed forthwith the process of creating a modern government. My first act will be the immediate abolition of all unnecessary restrictions on your lives and activities… every one of you must play his part towards this goal.”
And Omanis answered the call. Thousands, just like the fisherman, returned to their home country and helped rebuild it from within.
As a privileged expat, who grew up with a sense of entitlement expecting social welfare, healthcare, education and stability as a given right, it can be difficult to fully understand the deep gratitude and love the older generation feel towards a man they have never met face to face. But the feeling of ‘we are in this together’ he instilled in his countrymen never left them. They felt part of something bigger than themselves. When listening to these old men and women we should never forget that they have lived through these difficult times, they have seen life as it was before, and their gratitude for the changes comes from their hearts.
The young generation has grown up in a country free from conflict despite being in the middle of a troublesome region. Their parents have watched how Oman has regained its former reputation of being a strong, strategic yet peace-loving country.
Shiny fast cars decorated with stickers of Sultan Qaboos and the words ‘My Sultan — My Hero’ speaks volumes of the level of respect the young generation have for the man they have regarded as their leader since childhood. A man, who led from the front. Not a ruler — but a leader.
Many books have been written about Sultan Qaboos’ life and achievement, his vision and strength, but little has been written about the love he had for his people and the love they had for him. True, love cannot be measured or quantified in the same way as new hospitals or schools, roads or trade agreements can, but sitting in silence with my heart-broken friend and watch his pain, made me appreciate the old truth that ‘you will not always be remembered for what you did, but for how you made people feel, when you did it’.
Sultan Qaboos was not only admired and respected. He was loved. If you have ever watched a car full of young girls on their way home from the ice cream shop, satisfied by spoonfulls of strawberry ice cream and sprinkles, completely safe in the belief that they would forever be safe and cared for, blowing air kisses through the window as they passed Al Alam Palace and calling out “Night Night, Baba Qaboos”, you would know.
And as Oman moves forward on its path of success, this love will continue in the hearts of Omanis and expats alike; to us he will always remain… Baba Qaboos.
(The writer has lived in Oman since 2004, when she arrived from Denmark. After years of working in Muscat and a brief stint as a feature writer for Oman Daily Observer, she now spends her time travelling around the country talking to people, taking photos and creating memories. Her photobook ‘Oman, Not All Black and White’ shows her passion for a country she has come to call her own.)