Succession in the Sultanate: What risks will Oman’s leadership transition bring?

Oman’s success over the last half century is at risk of destabilization. Having gained a reputation as a bastion of stability since the Sultan seized power in 1970, the nation is growing increasingly close to an uncomfortable level of political and economic uncertainty. It is a country that has largely withstood the tests of the Arab Spring and the rise of regional extremism, but without an obvious successor to the current Sultan and with dwindling state finances, Oman’s citizens are being led towards an uncertain future.

Oman is currently ruled by Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said, a popular and respected leader who has led the nation through modernization and improvements in bureaucratic government processes, legal reforms and constitutionalising the rights of Omani citizens. Oman has no political parties and as with many Gulf monarchies, questioning the Al Said family’s right to rule is considered a significant taboo. The Sultan makes all major decisions, either in his capacity as head of state, or as prime minister, defence minister, foreign affairs minister or finance minister. He also serves as chairman of Oman’s central bank.

The political situation in Oman remained quiet through much of this year, with the Sultan having reportedly been in Europe receiving medical treatment for what is believed to be colon cancer, and only having recently returned to the public eye in Muscat. The 76-year old ruler appeared in good health, although seemingly thinner and frailer than before, raising questions about Oman’s succession procedures.

Though Qaboos was briefly married he has no children. Without a son or brother there is no heir apparent, and as custom dictates that the successor must be a descendent of Turki bin Said (1871-88), with two Omani parents, his replacement is expected to emerge from a pool of 50 to 60 male Al Said family members.

This plan is risky, as some royals could seize upon the succession to corner the throne for their branch of the family, triggering infighting as they realize this could be their last chance in a somewhat open transition that will soon be replaced by linear father-to-son succession.

While the Sultan has no direct heirs, preparations for his passing have supposedly been in place for some time. In the event of the Sultan’s death, the Omani Royal Council will have three days to select the new Sultan. If a decision is not made in that period, Qaboos has decreed that secret letters containing the name of his favored choice for the throne be opened. The secrecy is believed to be due to the Sultan’s concerns that a potential successor could gain enough power to challenge him while he still lives; not an overly-imaginative concern given that Qaboos himself came to power by ousting his own father in a palace coup.

This plan is risky, as some royals could seize upon the succession to corner the throne for their branch of the family, triggering infighting as they realize this could be their last chance in a somewhat open transition that will soon be replaced by linear father-to-son succession.

Three main candidates dominate the discussion around succession; Assad, Haitham and Shaheb, all three of whom are nephews of Qaboos. All have experience in government, are considered mature enough at around 60 years old, and all meet the key cultural requirement of having Omani wives and mothers. Assad is believed to be the favored candidate; his wife is related to Qaboos’ mother and he currently serves as Qaboos’ personal representative, and should the transition take place after his generation (the bin Tariqs) have passed an age of viable succession, his son Sayyid Taimur is also a potential contender. Assad is also believed to be popular among Oman’s military Officer Corps, having himself graduated the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in the United Kingdom. The unusual involvement of the Sultan in Sayyid Taimur’s 2004 marriage suggests not only the Sultan’s tacit blessing of the young prince, but also more indirectly of the prince’s father. Regardless of the Sultan’s intentions, however, this very atypical public blessing has convinced many Omanis that Assad and his son enjoy a special place among the Sultanate’s royals.

Even given potential rivalries within the royal family, the nation’s leadership is likely keen to see a trouble-free succession. Much like its neighbors, Oman depends on oil for most of its income, however Omani reserves are relatively small. The decline in oil prices is a much bigger challenge for Oman than for its richer neighbors as it maintains far smaller financial reserves and has a significantly less diversified economy. While Oman did see some minor Arab Spring unrest, this was mainly economic in nature and not particularly directed at the Sultan’s rule. Given the weaker economic conditions of Oman today, a second round of unrest could be more significant; especially if it coincides with any controversy around royal succession.

While Qaboos is extremely popular amongst Oman’s older generations due to his efforts to modernize the nation, the younger generations that did not experience the subsequent dramatic lifestyle improvements do not maintain this same level of admiration, and as such it is not entirely certain as to whether his succession wishes will be respected universally. One of the major challenges faced by the Omani government is that social costs continue to rise at a time when oil and gas revenues dwindle, and with one of the world’s youngest populations (almost 50 percent under the age of 20) this problem will only become more acute. The population has been growing by around 3 percent per year, while oil reserves, which provide nearly 70 percent of budget revenues, are shrinking and unemployment is rising.

The three most likely succession candidates are all of similar political persuasions as the Sultan, and are unlikely to make any significant changes to foreign or domestic policies. The main risk surrounding succession is therefore that a clear successor may not be determined by the Royal Council, leading to infighting driven by a resurgence of tribal and inter-family rivalries and different factions of the security services supporting rival claimants.

Despite its rare status as a stable nation within the Middle East, Oman’s strength is derived primarily from its oil reserves and the popularity of its leader, of which neither are eternal. The potential for future destabilization cannot be ignored, as both a succession-driven power struggle and economically-driven social unrest have potential to severely impact Oman within the next decade.

Lewis Tallon is a former British Army Intelligence Officer with several years experience working and living in the Middle East and North Africa region and Asia Pacific in geopolitical, armed conflict risk and threat intelligence roles. Lewis currently specialises in providing MENA-region geopolitical intelligence support to the oil & gas industry, and the financial sector.

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