As commentators and world leaders pay condolences on the death of Sultan Qaboos of Oman, they ignore the open secret of his sexuality. While lauding his contributions to Middle East peace (whatever that is) and his ability to act as a conduit between warring parties in the region, commentary ignores the repressive regime he ran in his own country.
Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said
Educated in England, the only son of the Sultan of Muscat and Oman graduated from Sandhurst Academy. On his return home, his father placed him under house arrest. However, in 1970 Qaboos overthrew his father in a coup supported by the British.
Sultan Qaboos ruled for the next 50 years as an absolute ruler of the renamed Sultanate of Oman. During that time he made notable reforms including ending slavery, lifting living standards and ending the sultanate’s international isolation.
The sultan also kept his country neutral, earning a reputation as ‘the Switzerland of the Middle East’. Because of that neutrality, he could act as an intermediary between sworn enemies like the US and Iran.
The sultan lived almost as an openly gay man, virtually hiding in plain sight, protected by a reluctance on the part of all players to acknowledge the obvious. Married briefly in the seventies, after his divorce, he seemingly gave up any pretence to heterosexuality.
One gay couple travelled around the 22 countries of the Arab League in 2019, ranking them on their gay friendliness. They included Oman in their list of the five most gay-friendly countries in the region.
“Ask anyone from the Middle East about gay Oman and they’ll be quick to tell you about the country’s gay Sultan!”
The flamboyant dresser surrounded himself in his palace with equally flamboyantly dressed male staff, most often described as ‘effete’. He reputedly also has an English male lover.
LGBTIQ rights in Oman
However, the sultan’s own sexuality did not translate to legal reform in the country. Oman’s legal code punishes homosexuality with up to three year’s jail. That said, the country appears not to bring prosecutions unless a matter becomes a public scandal.
In 2013, a local paper published an article describing the sultanate as more accepting of homosexuality than neighbouring countries. The over the top government response indicates the regime’s sensitivity on the subject. The paper only avoided closure by dedicating its entire front page to an extravagant apology for suggesting Oman provided a safe haven for Arab gays.
Apparently, neighbouring countries tolerate the lack of repression in Oman and the sultan’s own sexuality, provided it remains unacknowledged.
It is probable Qaboos could not have provided a diplomatic channel for the despotic ayatollahs of Iran as an openly gay ruler. However, the hypocritic mullahs were happy to make use of his services while his sexuality went unacknowledged.
One wonders, however, if reform might come quicker for LGBTIQ people in the Middle East if rulers like Sultan Qaboos and the allegedly closeted King of Morocco lived openly as their authentic selves.
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