Challenges for Oman’s new sultan

Ahmed Mostafa , Tuesday 17 Mar 2020

The main challenges for new Sultan Haitham Bin Tariq of Oman will be the reform and restructuring of the country’s economy, writes Ahmed Mostafa

Bin Tariq
Bin Tariq

The 40-day mourning period for Omanis after the death of their late sultan Qaboos Bin Said ended last month, putting the country and its new Sultan Haitham Bin Tariq face to face with new realities.

However, the new sultan will continue the legacy of the former sultan and has reiterated since his crowning that Oman will not be changing course. Many outside Oman will also think of the country’s foreign policy and the neutrality it has adhered to for decades, and this will probably also not change.

The new appointments made by Sultan Haitham to key positions and as diplomatic emissaries to neighbouring countries indicate that he is following the same path of keeping the country away from the chaotic disputes in the region as much as possible.

In a recent meeting with the Egyptian media in Cairo, Omani minister responsible for foreign affairs Youssef Bin Alawi Bin Abdullah confirmed that Omani foreign policy was permanent and did not change upon a change of leadership. He said that Oman did not sever relations with any country, even if a country severed its relations with Oman.

 “We are not hurt by those who disagree with us,” he said.

This was clear from the speech given by Sultan Haitham after the end of the mourning period, which was considered by many as his first comprehensive expression of policy. Foreign policy was not the focus of the speech, which concentrated on domestic issues. However, in a short paragraph about Oman’s relations with the outside world the sultan affirmed the continuation of peaceful relationships with all.

This is the legacy of sultan Qaboos that earned Oman the title of the “Switzerland of the Middle East,” as the sultanate has traditionally refused to choose sides in regional disputes and instead has aimed to foster dialogue.

The main challenges for the new sultan are domestic, particularly economic. Some observers wonder if he has the charisma sultan Qaboos enjoyed among his people. However, charisma may no longer be so important when what matters is experience and vision combined with stamina and resolve.

The preliminary indications are that Sultan Haitham has these qualities from his long duties in government, either in diplomacy, management or being in charge of drafting Oman’s Vision 2040 under the late sultan Qaboos.

In his speech, Sultan Haitham Bin Tariq appealed to the nation to trust his new leadership as Oman forged a new path of regeneration and renaissance.

“To support our efforts to achieve our goals, we are determined to take the necessary measures to restructure the state’s administrative apparatus, modernise the system of legislation, and work mechanisms, uphold values ​​and principles, adopt the latest administrative methods, simplify procedures and achieve good governance, performance, integrity and accountability,” he said.

These are necessary measures to revamp the economy of the country through reinvigorating the sluggish economic growth rate, enabling more private-sector participation, and tackling the high unemployment rate. The later has been the cause of mild protests, and the government has in the past placated the public by providing government and public-sector jobs.

However, Sultan Haitham has acknowledged that this is not a solution if he is to restructure the country’s bureaucracy and diversify the economy. He will not be able to retain the current situation in which the government is the country’s main employer, providing jobs for almost 87 per cent of the work force. To encourage the private sector to employ more people, Oman needs to diversify its economy and reduce its reliance on hydrocarbons production and export.

Since the slump in oil prices in summer 2014, Oman has been suffering recurring budget deficits that have reached more than eight per cent of GDP. As the global economic situation worsens due to the spread of the new Coronavirus, the new sultan has had to take his first important economic measure by cutting the budgets of all government bodies by five per cent.

This might add to the already high unemployment rate of over 17 per cent in Oman. But Omanis understand that if they are to see their country on the way to recovery, they will have to shoulder burdens. What matters is to trust their leader, which so far they have been doing.

Oman is now negotiating loans of two billion riyals (more than $5 billion) to cover the deficit and meet the maturation of bonds due in 2021 and 2022. To be able to borrow from the international markets, the government needs to take drastic measures to improve its credit-rating, which is currently low.

The most important stratum in Omani society where support for the new sultan will be most significant is the country’s youth. In his speech last month, Sultan Haitham highlighted the importance of younger Omanis, saying that “youth are our nation’s wealth. They are our present and future, and we are dedicated to listening to them.”

It remains to be seen if Omani youth will listen to and embrace the strategy of their leadership. Conventional wisdom and previous experience suggest that the Omanis are people capable of great endurance and that they put their trust in their leadership even as things get harder.

The world is facing a possible global economic recession as a result of the new Coronavirus, and oil-producing countries are under pressure from collapsing prices. But the new sultan of Oman seems ready to face such challenges early in his reign.

*A version of this article appears in print in the  19 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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