style leader no. 64
Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said prefers to rule Oman not with an iron fist but with a well-starched dishdasha. Qaboos overthrew his father in 1970 and installed himself as absolute monarch of a state that had shrunk from an empire to a dusty corner of the Arabian Peninsula. As the sultan set about modernising the country, he attempted to pull together the myriad influences that trickled into Oman from its east African colonies. “In photographs from the period we do not get a sense of one culture,” says Ahmed al-Mukhaini, a Muscat-based analyst of Gulf affairs. “So his majesty instituted a dress code.”
Qaboos cultivates an erudite rule at odds with some of his Gulf partners: a lively opera house in Muscat, strict regulations on the height and colour of new buildings and a penchant for London’s best tailors (in 1981 he had Savile Row’s Dege & Skinner cut uniforms for the Royal Oman Police Camel Pipe Band).
In public, however, Qaboos almost always dons the national dress he instituted (only certain colours and patterns get the royal thumbs-up), giving him an everyman quality that’s useful for keeping Omanis onside when the country takes up its mantle as a mediator. The sultan hosted talks between the US and Iran over its nuclear programme, has remained neutral on Yemen and horrified the Gulf Cooperation Council by inviting Syria’s foreign minister to Muscat.
Despite occasional clamour for a more constitutional monarchy, Omanis otherwise have confidence in the sultan’s decrees. But as Qaboos turns 75, his prolonged medical treatment this year and lack of an heir are generating concerned murmurings, albeit behind closed doors.
Massar: The bright colours of the Omani headdress are a nod to the country’s former empire in east Africa. When Qaboos opts for a new palette, the country follows.
Facial hair: The meticulously neat yet ample beard gives the impression of both a moderniser and traditionalist.
Bisht: When not wearing national dress, Qaboos indulges in his love of military tailoring, a throwback to his days at the UK’s military academy Sandhurst.
Khanjar: The ceremonial dagger made by Omani silversmiths is still worn by the populace on formal occasions. In the 1970s, Qaboos commissioned Rolex Sea-Dweller 1665s with a gold khanjar printed on the watch face for the UK’s special armed forces, who helped him quell a Cold War-fuelled rebellion.
Bheki Makhubu is editor of The Nation, a monthly political magazine in Swaziland, Africa’s last absolute monarchy. In June he was released on appeal after spending more than a year in jail for criticising the nation’s judiciary.
Why is ‘The Nation’ the only critical voice in Swaziland’s media landscape?
Everybody is always playing to the powerful in the hope of currying favour. Traditionally the media has tended to employ people who are young so there’s been no intellectual growth. And politicians take young journalists to task so they get intimidated.
Has prison affected your work?
The authorities had begun to think we didn’t need anybody else in the world but international pressure got so strong that they had to give in. I feel the vindication allows me to continue where I left off and the inference is that if you touch me again, there will be a backlash.
Do you think Swaziland will get a multi-party democracy soon?
I doubt it. However, that’s not to say we should not try to improve things.
While much of north Africa’s mass-transit infrastructure is creaking with age, Morocco is in the midst of a light-rail revolution. In 2011, Rabat launched two tramlines to connect the capital to neighbouring Salé, with 31 stations lining the route managed by Paris-based Transdev; Casablanca’s trams carry 100,000 passengers every day.
The success of these networks has prompted more metro services to roll into action, starting in Marrakesh. The installation of new networks has coincided with a much-needed upgrade of street lighting, paving and seating along the routes, as well as several pedestrian-friendly squares. Fez is likely to get on board in the near future.
Daallo Airlines and Jubba Airways are carriers in the Horn of Africa that kept Somalis moving while their country went through a decades-long civil war. As Somalia returns to some degree of stability, the Gulf’s big airlines are already eyeing up lucrative new routes into Mogadishu that could drive these smaller operations out of the skies.
In response, Daallo and Jubba have joined forces to create the Africa Aero Alliance, a new carrier composed of two former rivals. Although the details of the merger are still being worked out, the deal offers a model for how Africa’s many small carriers could unite to stay airborne.