Sultan Qaboos of Oman took power from his mad father in a palace coup in the 1970s and has ruled Oman as an absolute monarch ever since. Oman is known to be a relatively poor country that recently discovered hydrocarbon deposits, with historically violent religious elements that have remained dormant through the current sultan’s reign. Sultan Qaboos is also a bachelor — while most emirs of the region his age have several wives, Oman’s Sultan is famous for divorcing his wife shortly after taking power and remaining single ever since, with no successor to take his place. Also, if you discuss Oman and its politics here in the Middle East, one of the first hushed comments you’ll hear is that the Sultan of Oman is widely rumored to be gay.
This is not rare, random gossip from an unreliable source. Go to google and type in “Sultan Oman,” and the first recommended search that pops up is “sultan oman homosexual.” Follow through that search and you’ll find a few online articles that address the topic, but the primarily web pages are random blog comments from people who sound knowledgable. To pass on these rumors and more, here are a few: the King apparently has a cadre of very attractive bodyguards; his harem is full of men, with women there as helpers and only to avoid widespread scrutiny; the Sultan is rumored to be a pedophile who goes off boys once they hit puberty; that people won’t introduce their sons to him; and much more.
This is, of course, worthy of a blog post not [only?] because of the tabloid headline, but because both gays and lesbians can be jailed for up to three years in Oman. That’s a step more progressive than Saudi Arabia, where it can be punished with execution, but it also gets to a the culture of homosexuality in the Middle East, and an important question: is it easier to be gay and successful in a country where homosexuality is taboo and not public? Homosexual behavior is actually not uncommon in the Middle East, where women are covered, there is little socialization between genders, and the relief of male sexual frustration is often accomplished in the same way as in all-male prisons in the US. Or so it is widely reported, believed, and discussed. Yet because there are no open homosexuals showing themselves in public, people don’t instinctively categorize people as “gay” v.s. “straight” and thus there is less concern about being identified as one.
The Sultan of Oman and his alleged homosexuality makes me think, together with successful homosexuals in recent US history (e.g. James Buchanan, Roy Cohn, and many more) that it may be easier to engage in private homosexual behavior without being scrutinized in a society with no “lifestyle homosexuals.” Even if the Sultan of Oman is not gay, he feels no need to deny or act to quash the rumors, and he has not suffered any condemnation by the very conservative religious elements in Oman. Indeed, even they may tolerate his homosexuality because it is seen as a mere “hobby” or personal preference, not a lifestyle that threatens his status as a man in society or as a national leader.