Oman's new ruler vows to uphold peaceful policy of Qaboos

AP , Saturday 11 Jan 2020

Sultan Haitham of Oman
This image made from video shows Oman's new sultan Haitham bin Tariq Al Said, makes his first speech in front of the Royal Family Council in Muscat, Oman, Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020. (AP)

Oman's new ruler, Sultan Haitham bin Tariq Al Said, vowed Saturday to uphold his predecessor Sultan Qaboos bin Said's foreign policy approach, which steered the Arab country through choppy Persian Gulf waters by balancing close relations with both the United States and Iran.

The new ruler, who was Oman's culture minister, spoke after being named successor to Sultan Qaboos, the Middle East's longest-ruling monarch whose death was announced Saturday. He died at the age of 79 after years of an undisclosed illness.

Sultan Haitham's message to Omanis and the world was clear: Oman would continue down the path laid by Qaboos as a facilitator of peace.

``We will follow the same line as the late sultan, and the principles that he asserted for the foreign policy of our country, of peaceful coexistence among nations and people, and good neighborly behavior of non-interference in the affairs of others,`` he said in his first public remarks as sultan.

The 66-year-old shook hands with the country's royal family and top military and security brass before witnessing ceremonial cannon fire. The Al Said family has ruled Oman since the eighteenth century, and once ruled over Zanzibar too, off the coast of Tanzania.

Oman sits on the southeastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, with Iran to its east, Yemen to its west and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to its north.

Sultan Qaboos shaped Oman's policy of non-interference and diplomatic balancing. Under his leadership, Oman was a facilitator of talks between adversaries, including Iran and the United States. Oman is a close ally of Washington and viewed as a valuable regional player.

Qaboos, who came to power nearly 50 years ago when he deposed his father in a 1970 palace coup, refused to join the Saudi-led coalition at war in Yemen and kept the country's border with Yemen open throughout the conflict. Oman has also played a conciliatory role between the Houthis and their Gulf enemies, hosting peace talks and facilitating prisoner exchanges. Oman also did not join a Saudi- and Emirati-led boycott of neighboring Qatar, and has maintained relations with enemies Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Oman was the only Gulf Arab country that kept its embassy in Damascus open throughout Syria's now 9-year civil war.

In 2018, the sultan hosted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a surprise visit. It marked the first visit by an Israeli leader in more than 20 years to the tiny Gulf state, further cementing Oman's strategic ability to be a facilitator and even mediator.

In the capital Muscat, soldiers stood guard and troops stood with machine guns atop SUVs as Omanis gathered along a highway to see the motorcade carrying the sultan's body for burial.

Thousands also gathered at the Sultan Qaboos Mosque where funeral prayers were held Saturday. The mosque is an architecturally stunning complex of white marble and manicured gardens that reflects how the sultan modernized his country without eschewing its cultural heritage or building towering skyscrapers like other neighboring Gulf capitals.

Following Islamic tradition, Qaboos was buried before nightfall. His successor was announced by afternoon Saturday.

The speed and manner in which his successor was named suggest the Al Said family wanted to project a sense of unity, continuity and stability as tensions run high in the Persian Gulf amid escalations between Iran and the United States.

Omani state television announced Haitham bin Tariq bin Said as the new sultan over footage showing the funeral of Qaboos, who did not have any children.

``It is a sad day in Oman, but also represents a new beginning with a new leader,'' a presenter on the state TV said soberly.

The new sultan was selected in an intricate process that was broadcast on state TV after Qaboos' burial.

The country's Defense Council, in the presence of the Royal Family Council, was shown opening a sealed letter in which Sultan Qaboos names his choice for successor. The Defense Council then read the contents of the letter aloud before all those present in the meeting, announcing Haitham bin Tariq Al Said as the dynasty's heir.

The Royal Family Council had called on the Defense Council to unseal the letter, according to Oman's state news agency. Qaboo's choice of successor was a closely guarded secret believed to have been known only to the sultan.

According to Omani succession laws, the royal council could have met and selected an heir from among them, only consulting the letter if they could not agree within three days. Instead, they chose to defer to the letter and air its reading on Omani state TV_ a move that underscores how beloved Qaboos was and which helps give immediate credibility to his successor.

Sultan Haitham is a career diplomat who'd long been tapped as one of the front-runners for succession. His role as minister of national heritage and culture helped project Omani influence. Haitham is a cousin of Qaboos, according to Gulf media reports.

The Oxford graduate spent 16 years in various roles with the foreign ministry, starting in 1986. He was the ministry's undersecretary for political affairs and its secretary general. He has sometimes also chaired Cabinet meetings.

Unlike other Gulf Arab rulers and their heirs, he has not overseen important defense and security portfolios. He has been described as quieter and less assertive than other members of the royal family.

He is known in international policy circles because of his interactions with world leaders and other royal families. For example, he greeted Prince Charles and his wife Camilla when the British royal couple arrived in Oman in 2016. He was also present

This experience ``was considered to have provided him with the necessary political gravitas and foreign policy expertise to help steer Oman into a post-Qaboos era,'' said Sigurd Neubauer, a Middle East expert, in an analysis for The Arab Gulf States Institution in Washington.

The new ruler of Oman faces monumental challenges in steering his country both regionally and domestically.

There is discontent among youth in Oman over unemployment and the cost of living. Omanis protested the government as part of the wider Arab Spring unrest in 2011.

Like other Gulf Arab states, Oman has struggled to diversify its economy amid lower oil prices. Sultan Haitham, in addition to being culture minister, was in charge of the country's Vision 2040 program that lays out strategies to make the country less reliant on oil and gas exports for revenue. It states that 93% of economic activity should be fueled by non-oil sectors and calls for 42% of Omanis to be employed by private businesses rather than the public sector.

Saudi Arabia described Qaboos as the man who modernized Oman. The United Arab Emirates and Egypt described Qaboos as a ``wise leader.`` The UAE, which has had tense relations with Qaboos in the past, announced three days of mourning.

In Yemen, the Houthis, who are at war with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, described him as leader who worked to end the country's 5-year-old conflict.

India described him as a beacon of peace, while rival Pakistan called Qaboos a beloved leader and trusted friend.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Qaboos was ``an exceptionally wise and respected leader who will be missed enormously.''

``He leaves a profound legacy, not only in Oman but across the region too,'' Johnson said in a statement.

In the United States, former President George W. Bush issued a statement saying Qaboos was ``a stable force in the Middle East and a strong U.S. ally.''

``His Majesty had a vision for a modern, prosperous, and peaceful Oman, and he willed that vision into reality,'' Bush said, adding that he and his wife visited him in Muscat last fall.

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