In a smooth transition, Haitham Bin Tariq Al-Said rose to power in Oman as the successor to his cousin, late Sultan Qaboos Bin Said, who ruled the oil-rich country for 50 years. Qaboos’s rule was known for its vast developments and calm diplomacy in one of the world’s most tumultuous regions.
For years, since Qaboos was announced ill — the nature of the disease undisclosed — Western media published reports speculating about his successor. He didn’t have children, nor did he name an heir to the throne.
According to the Omani Constitution, however, the Supreme Defence Council would convene the Royal Family to name a successor. If the meeting didn’t end with naming an heir, the council, two houses of parliament and the Royal Family would convene to open two letters written by Qaboos in which he named his successor.
The 50 Busaidi princes convened in a short meeting to announce their approval of whatever choice their sultan made deferring to his “well-known wisdom and farsighted vision”. They unsealed an envelope with the former ruler’s choice and appointed Haitham Bin Tariq the ninth Al-Said sultan of Oman, founded by Imam Ahmed in 1744.
The Busaidi dynasty ruled Zanzibar and Oman for more than two centuries, which ended in January 1964, after which the region united with Tanganyika to establish Tanzania together the following year.
The transfer of power to Sultan Haitham reflects the desire of the Omani elite to avoid ambiguity in the country, despite the fact that this ambiguity is far from Oman’s political calculations.
For five decades, Qaboos pursued positive neutrality, rejecting alliances, maintaining strong relations with all and independence from all at the same time.
In one of the earliest “tests”, Muscat, alongside Khartoum, refused to sever ties with Cairo following the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty in 1978.
Some considered it a response to Cairo withdrawing its support for the rebellion in Dhofar after the October 1973 War.
Two years later, the Iraq-Iran War (September 1980) broke out. Oman maintained its relations with Iran and Iraq, even though the remaining Gulf states supported Baghdad financially in the face of the Iranian policy of “exporting the revolution”.
Qaboos’s position, however, did not prevent him from being one of the most important founders of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Nor did he lose his distinguished relations with Jordan (Baghdad’s ally for decades) that supported Muscat in eliminating the insurgency in Dhofar (1964-1975).
He supported the Palestinian cause, and he remained friends with its late leader Yasser Arafat. But this did not prevent him from publicly welcoming Shimon Peres in 1999 and Benjamin Netanyahu in 2019. The latter took place while many Arab politicians kept meeting secretly with their Israeli counterparts.
Despite his strong strategic relations with the US, where he met with all recent White House leaders, either as a visitor or as a host, he contributed strongly to mediating between the US and Iran.
It became known to all the role of Oman in the effective mediation of the 2015 nuclear agreement between Tehran and the P5+1 group (the US, Russia, Britain, France, China and Germany).
Until the last days of Qaboos’s life, his diplomacy worked to contain the crisis between Washington and Tehran, after the US shelled of the convoy of Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani in Baghdad last week.
Muscat’s policy in the recent Gulf crisis did not differ from its long and steady course. Oman tried to bring Qatar closer to its opponents in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt.
A policy of non-interference in other states’ affairs and positive neutrality is what the new sultan has pledged to continue, despite challenges that appear on the surface.
These challenges, however, can possibly help Muscat maintain its neutrality.
Oman is facing economic difficulties. The country’s population grew to over three million people, the majority of whom were born during the reign of Qaboos. These generations didn’t endure the austerities of the four decades preceding the “Renaissance Day” of 23 July 1970.
The sultanate witnessed protests at the time of the Arab Spring in which Omani demonstrators demanded the end of corruption and generating jobs. The Omani government complied.
The country will need a third wave of economic reforms. The first wave lasted from the 1970s to the 1990s and it focused on infrastructure and social services, including education, healthcare, pensions and housing. The second wave, in the late 1990s, was the beginning of foreign investment and revenues from tourism.
The sultanate attracted billions of dollars in direct investment in the tourism, oil and wholesale sectors, but it still needs Gulf funds in these sectors.
The agricultural and fish sectors need upgrades, according to the Oman 2040 Strategy the sultanate drew up some years ago.
Oman lies in a strategic location that controls the Strait of Hormuz from the Arab side and in a very sensitive corner southeast of the Arabian Peninsula. It needs a larger and more modern infrastructure that meets the needs of its large population growth, and neighbours that can resort to Oman’s potential in any field.
Politically, Oman can take a fourth step, allowing Omanis over the age of 21 to vote. Oman established its Consultative Council in 1981, the Shura Council in 1990 and the State Council in 1997.
Oman needs its policy of neutrality now more than ever despite the progress Qaboos made, when he took the country’s GDP from $300 million in 1979 to $80 billion at present.
Tension stretches from the Gulf, to Iran, Iraq and the US. Tensions are also miring Indo-Pakistani relations, with the re-election of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janatia Party to power. Muscat has historical ties with both Islamabad and New Delhi.
Yemen is also enduring critical moments that render it hostage to all possibilities. In addition, new arrangements in Syria, Turkey and Iraq would affect the rest of the region, including Oman.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 January, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.