Sultan Qaboos engineered his own smooth succession

The death of Sultan Qaboos Bin Said Al-Said on the evening of 10 January leaves Oman without its defining figure for five decades. He has been succeeded by Sayyid Haitham Bin Tariq Al-Said.

While rumours of Qaboos’ health had swirled around for months – placing the 79-year-old sultan (since 1970) between remission and death – close observers said that in mid-December he had abandoned a planned programme of medical treatment in Leuven, Belgium, knowing it would be futile. His death while much predicted and speculated on nonetheless comes as a profound shock to his nation, in which he played an unparalleled role in bringing into the modern world, and whose political life he dominated as an absolute ruler.

According to one analyst who served in the deserts of Oman and maintains close ties with the sultanate, Qaboos’ rule was driven by an understanding that “the alternative to an iron fist could be hunger, chaos and misery for his people of the type which has transpired in neighbouring Yemen”.

Married for little more than one day and so without an heir, the sultan planned the succession process carefully, so as to avoid the royal family murders and coups that have been a feature of Omani rulership for centuries. In the end, the Royal Family Council met quickly after the sultan’s death; it elected to immediately open the sealed envelope containing Qaboos’s own nomination, rather than to deliberate for the prescribed three days before anointing a new ruler. Thus not only has the royal family endorsed Sayyid Haitham, but he also enjoys the authority and blessing bestowed upon him by the late sultan, whose abiding authority commanded the overwhelming respect and obedience of what historically has been a fractious land, divided on tribal and religious grounds.

The swiftness and efficiency with which the succession has taken place has left little opportunity either for internal dissension, or for external intervention predicated on unrest and the need for stability. Nonetheless, the analyst told GSN, “the first months of the new sultan’s reign may be tense, with spoilers seeking to take advantage of the situation. For now the security establishment has the situation well under control, and can expect to receive support from the United Kingdom in particular should it be necessary.”

Oman’s main strategic issue is to switch emphasis in the economy away from oil and gas to develop a broader-based economy which can sustain the needs of a state with high social and welfare spending, and sustainably employ more young Omanis. Sultan Haitham will preside over an economy which in recent years has faltered in delivering on an ambitious programme to balance the books, reduce national debt – which had been rising to dangerous levels – and encourage private enterprise. For so long a driving force in Oman’s modernisation, the ailing Qaboos was sapped of the energy necessary to push through such radical transformation.

Haitham Bin Tariq – something of a surprise choice – is the more business-focused of the candidates that had been running for the post He has played a key role in the strategic and economic planning process in recent years, and is thus well-equipped to push forward this ambitious programme at pace, notwithstanding the risks of social disruption it may well cause. 

From periods in the sultanate’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Sultan Haitham is also wise to the important role Oman has played as an intermediary between adversaries in the region. This is a traditional and well-established role that Oman will likely continue to play, at a time when with live disputes involving Iran, Qatar and Yemen this has perhaps never been so important.

Pointing to important – and potentially fractious – relations that require careful management, the new sultan on 12 January received the United Arab Emirates’ de facto ruler, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan.

There will be much more on the death of Sultan Qaboos and the prospects for his successor in GSN 1,096, to be published on 23 January.

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