Internal changes in the Sultanate of Oman led the news bulletins in the Arab countries and beyond last week in a development that was out of place for the usually quiet Arab Gulf country.
The new ruler of the country, Sultan Haitham Bin Tarik Al-Said, has revamped the government in the sort of reshuffle not common in Oman, perhaps as a way of asserting his authority after assuming power in January this year after the death of the late sultan Qaboos Bin Said who had ruled Oman for half a century.
Some analysts in the region and beyond tried to read more into the changes, concluding that the government reshuffle might mean a shift in Omani foreign policy, especially towards its neighbours and its position on regional and international issues. Yet, on the face of it, the changes were widely expected as the new sultan has been establishing his position and choosing a team to lead the country in facing its many challenges.
Change in Oman would ordinarily have been more gradual and taken a longer time, but the unprecedented situation created by the Covid-19 pandemic combined with dwindling national revenues as a result of a drop in oil prices provided an opportunity for Sultan Haitham to make many changes in one go.
He issued 28 decrees on 18 August that not only reshuffled members of the government but also changed the country’s administrative structure down to the regions and appointed many new figures.
The main changes were domestic and focused on the economy of Oman at a time of major challenges. Ministries were consolidated and scaled down as part of efforts to squeeze public spending, and Oman’s new cabinet now consists of 19 ministers compared to 26 before the reshuffle.
Some responsibilities previously held by the sultan were devolved onto ministers, and Oman now has both a foreign minister and a finance minister, previously roles kept by the late sultan Qaboos himself, with ministers of state responsible only for implementing policy.
Though Oman still does not have a separate defence minister, Sultan Haitham previously created the position of deputy prime minister for defence affairs to oversee this portfolio, appointing his brother Shihab Bin Tarik Al-Said to oversee the defence of the country. In the new reshuffle, former minister responsible for defence affairs Badr Bin Saud Al-Busaidi and secretary to the Ministry of Defence Mohamed Al-Rasbi were replaced.
Another deputy prime ministerial role created in the changes was taken by the sultan’s older cousin Fahd Bin Mahmoud Al-Said. The two new deputy prime ministers will now assume responsibilities previously confined to the sultan, who is also prime minister of Oman.
The reason why some commentators have identified possible changes in Oman’s foreign policy as a result of the reshuffle was because veteran minister of state for foreign affairs Yusuf Bin Alawi Bin Abdallah, the Arab world’s longest-serving foreign minister, was let go, with former secretary of the defence ministry Badr Bin Hamad Al-Busaidi being appointed instead.
Bin Alawi has been seen by some in the region as the reason for Oman’s tilting towards Iran and Qatar, though in fact he was just executing Oman’s foreign policy as decided by the sultan and according to Oman’s general principle of non-alignment in any regional or international disputes.
The new foreign minister has been part of the Omani diplomatic corps for so long that he will surely follow the same path.
Another veteran who left the council of ministers, as the Omani cabinet is called, was former minister of state for finance Darwish Al-Balushi, who was replaced by financial expert Sultan Al-Habsi who has formerly served in a number of senior positions, including as secretary-general of the Supreme Council for Planning and head of the Oman Tax Authority.
The private sector in Oman and outside has welcomed his appointment, along with new Commerce and Industry Minister Qais Al-Yusuf who has replaced Ali Al-Sunaidy, seeing both changes as steps towards further opening and diversifying the country’s economy.
Former American ambassador to Oman Marc J Sievers wrote on the website of the Atlantic Council, a US think tank, that “while I was ambassador from 2016 to 2019, sultan Qaboos generally included some combination of minister Bin Alawi, minister Al-Balushi and minister Al-Sunaidy when receiving American or British senior officials in meetings and subsequent lavish official dinners. Now that the three are no longer ministers, it will be interesting to see whom Sultan Haitham includes when he receives senior visitors” from abroad.
One other noticeable feature of the cabinet reshuffle was the inclusion of more women in government. Two female ministers were added to the council of ministers, bringing the total number of women in the cabinet to five.
However, the main focus of the changes was on the economy, which now has a ministry to itself instead of being part of the Finance Ministry. This in itself is a message to the world outside, and especially to global markets, that Sultan Haitham is keen on reforming Oman’s economy.
Muscat is reaching out to international financial institutions for a $2 billion loan to invest in its free-trade zones. Credit-ratings agency Moody’s recently downgraded Oman and put its outlook as “negative,” warning that the country’s efforts in dealing with its economic problems were “slow and fall short of stabilising government debt levels.”
Oman’s debt now stands at around 60 per cent of GDP.
In a report released on 24 August, the consultancy Global Data welcomed the government reshuffle in Oman, especially the new appointments to economic posts.
“The appointments came one day after Oman’s sovereign rating was further downgraded by Fitch Ratings. The sultanate’s new BB- rating, accompanied by a negative outlook, is three notches below investment grade and places it at the same level as Brazil and Bangladesh. It underscores the consistently worsening budgetary challenges Oman has faced since oil prices crashed in 2014,” it noted.
Sultan Haitham has reiterated many times that he will follow the same path as his predecessor in ruling the country. While this may apply to Oman’s foreign policy and its relations with its neighbours in the tense region of the Gulf, in domestic affairs, and particularly in the economy, the new ruler of Oman has been faced with unprecedented circumstances, and he will need to find ways to face them.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.