Qaboos, sometimes called the father of the nation in Oman, was known to be protective of the country’s autonomy in foreign policy throughout the 49 years of his rule. In the 1980s, Oman was among the only Arab countries that chose not to boycott Egypt for signing a peace treaty with Israel. Under his rule, Oman maintained relations with Iran before and after the Islamic revolution, facilitating Iran’s diplomacy with Saudi Arabia as well as with the United States. Whether his successor can continue this independent diplomatic role will be a critical question for regional politics.
Choosing the successor
Qaboos had no children or designated heir. Upon learning of his death, it took the ruling family council of Oman only a couple of hours to follow his guidance on how to select his successor. By 7 a.m. Saturday, Oman’s defense council had unsealed the envelope containing Qaboos’s choice, and Haitham bin Tariq al Said was sworn in as the new sultan in the capital, Muscat.
The speed of the decision reflected the potential for dangerous turbulence. The ruling family wanted to show unity and cohesion to the outside world, in part to prevent neighboring countries from seeking to take advantage of the transition. The family wanted to avoid lengthy and possibly controversial deliberations in choosing its candidate, which would have made a delicate process vulnerable to external interference.
Omani elites have long been alert to such possible interference in the vulnerable moment of succession. Neighbors such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Iran all have a stake in the future of Oman’s domestic and foreign policy. Following Qaboos’s guidance so quickly and decisively kept them on the sidelines.
Who is the new sultan?
The son of Qaboos’s uncle, Haitham was long considered most likely to succeed Qaboos. Unlike his half brothers, Assad and Shihab, Haitham has no military background and instead has been more engaged in business, foreign affairs and Oman’s cultural portfolio.
Educated at Oxford, where he studied diplomacy, he served as undersecretary and secretary general at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. These diplomatic skills will be essential as Sultan Haitham navigates regional politics while preserving traditional Omani policies, as he pledged to do in his first statements. Haitham, known to be fond of cultural initiatives, became minister of culture and heritage in 2002. In this, he resembles Qaboos, similarly known for his passion for culture, especially classical music and the opera.
Like all senior Omani royals, Haitham is close to the British crown and will guarantee a continuity of privileged ties with the United Kingdom. Stressing friendliness with all neighbors, Haitham reaffirmed Muscat’s policy of neutrality between Riyadh and Tehran. Two other testy relationships to consider will be that with the United States, which has worsened under the presidency of Donald Trump, and with the UAE, whose proactive assertiveness clashes with Omani inclinations for moderation and stability.
Economic challenges ahead
Possibly Haitham’s most important experience came in 2013, when Qaboos put him in charge of the committee developing Oman Vision 2040, a plan to diversify the sultanate’s economy from an overreliance on (scarce) energy resources. This was a significant choice, as Haitham’s reputation had just been hit by the failure of his Blue City luxury real estate business venture. Blue City had to be bailed out by the government in 2012, when the Arab Spring sentiments against corruption, mismanagement of public funds and elites were at their zenith in the sultanate.
Thus, he will probably face the greatest scrutiny from Omanis on the economy, where great challenges lie ahead. With a growing population bent on defending its generous welfare benefits and a stagnant economy dominated by public-sector employment and public spending, Oman has been facing a persistent fiscal deficit and has consistently resorted to issuing debt on the international bond market. Now stuck in a debt repayment cycle, and with youth unemployment around 10 percent, Oman will urgently need to make unpopular reforms. Haitham will have to leverage his ties with Oman’s merchant families to solicit large private investments domestically, alongside trying to attract foreign capital. Winning the confidence of Omanis will be crucial, as he may have to cut public spending and employment.
What comes next?
Even if he is a monarch in an absolute system, Haitham will not be able to reign without winning the hearts and minds of regular Omanis. He is coming after Qaboos, who, although not without shadows, was revered as an embodiment of the Omani national identity. The national day of Oman even coincides with Qaboos’s birthday, Nov. 18.
Qaboos forged the sultanate amid two civil wars: one with the remnants of the imamate in the country’s interior and the other with a Marxist-Leninist group in southern Dhofar. He wove together an ethnically diverse country, including a multitude of tribes and sociopolitical communities, under one flag and one ruler. The late sultan used an inclusive political strategy centered on co-opting former and potential rivals and tirelessly promoting a rejection of extremism and peaceful coexistence. Qaboos also skillfully navigated palace politics in tense and volatile times, including the Arab Spring, while always maintaining the highest possible discretion. Haitham, with his quiet and reflective personality, will have to leverage all of these key components of Oman’s national character to push through the difficult times ahead.
Cinzia Bianco is the Gulf Research Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and a PhD candidate at the University of Exeter’s Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies.