On January 10th, the long ruling and much-lauded Sultan Qaboos of Oman passed away, launching the nation’s complex and antiquated succession process. A sealed envelope containing the name of the new Sultan, Haitham bin Tariq al Said has been opened, putting to rest a decade of speculation over which of the childless Sultan’s relatives would succeed him. In this piece, we examine the profile of Oman’s new ruler, and what his ascension might mean for one of the Middle East’s least-known, yet influential, states.
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Sultan Qaboos led Oman for 50 years and was instrumental in guiding Oman’s thoughtful foreign policy in a manner that has kept the country insulated from the turbulence gripping its neighbours. His key successes include maintaining the country’s neutrality in the ongoing dispute between Qatar and its neighbours, facilitating the release of the three American hikers detained by Iran in 2009, and playing a mediating role in talks between the US and Iran that led to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal.
In recent years, Qaboos’ health had been failing, leading to extensive speculation about his longevity and who might succeed the childless ruler. Multiple hurried trips to European medical facilities by the two Royal 747 jets (registration numbers A4O-OMN and A4O-HMS), combined with the Sultan’s long absence from public life, led to speculation around the risks surrounding the succession process itself, which could be seized upon by ambitious branches of the family as a rare opportunity to hijack the royal lineage.
The secrecy and redundancy around this process was 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.
The Al Said family have ruled Oman since 1744, and the absence of direct heirs to Sultan Qaboos’ reign posed a potentially complex challenge for the Royal family. Following the Sultan’s funeral (attended by tens of thousands of mourning Omanis), a long-awaited selection process began; the Omani Royal Council was officially given three days to select the new Sultan based on an interpretation of the late ruler’s wishes. If a decision was not able to be made in that period, Qaboos himself decreed that secret letters left in palaces across the country containing the name of his favoured choice for the throne be opened. The secrecy and redundancy around this process was due to the Sultan’s concerns that a potential successor – if telegraphed to the world ahead of his passing – could gain enough power to challenge him whilst he still lived; not an overly-imaginative concern given that Qaboos himself came to power by ousting his own father in a palace coup. In reality, the Sultan’s family and the Royal Council gathered on Saturday 4th January and within a few hours of meeting had agreed to proceed directly with the wishes laid out in Qaboos’ letter. This surprisingly rapid turnaround suggests that political moves within the family had been made in advance and that an agreement was in place ahead of the Sultan’s death. Some analysts have even speculated that the Sultan’s death occurred some days earlier, but that the announcement had been postponed in order to allow succession negotiations to take place out of the public eye.
Three main candidates had traditionally dominated dynastic assessments; Assad, Haitham and Shaheb, all of whom are nephews of the late Sultan. The announcement last week of Haitham bin Tariq al Said as successor came as a shock to many, with his half-brother Assad having long been seen as the favoured candidate; his wife is related to Sultan Qaboos’ mother and he served as Qaboos’ personal representative up until the Sultan’s death. Assad is also known to be popular among Oman’s military Officer Corps, having himself graduated from the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in the United Kingdom with solid grades. The unusual involvement of Sultan Qaboos in the 2004 marriage of Assad’s son, Sayyid Taimur, suggested not only the Sultan’s tacit blessing of the young prince, but also more indirectly of the prince’s father. It has been suggested that Qaboos may have even deliberately staged the appearance of Assad as the favoured choice for successor as a countermeasure against palace conspiracy.
The relatively professional nature of Oman’s armed forces have contributed – in combination with the late Sultan’s diplomatic neutrality and the resistance of the country’s unique strain of Ibadi Islam to extremism – to a nation relatively insulated from the turbulence surrounding it.
Haitham bin Tariq al Said, the new Sultan, is an experienced player in the world of foreign policy, having graduated from Oxford University’s Pembroke College’s Foreign Service Programme, followed by a tenure as both the Undersecretary and then General Secretary of the Omani Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The new Sultan previously chaired the Anglo-Omani Society, and is described as “outward-looking and Western-oriented“, and has announced in early speeches that he intends to maintain a foreign policy trajectory similar to that of his predecessor. Despite this, the various states whose interests Oman sought to balance during Qaboos’ tenure, such as Saudi Arabia, UAE, the United States and Iran, can be expected to exert extensive pressure on the new Sultan to adopt more favourable positions towards them in the months ahead, and as such it will be critical to closely monitor Haitham’s responses to diplomatic overtures in the coming weeks.
In the short term, the death of Sultan Qaboos is highly unlikely to trigger domestic unrest or clamour for reform, as the country is broadly stable and respect for the ruling family is deeply ingrained. The relatively professional nature of Oman’s armed forces have contributed – in combination with the late Sultan’s diplomatic neutrality (including his ability to maintain relations with controversial neighbours such as Israel and Iran) and the resistance of the country’s unique strain of Ibadi Islam to extremism – to a nation relatively insulated from the turbulence surrounding it. Yemen’s civil war has not spilled over the frontier, and not a single Omani has joined the estimated 20,000 foreign fighters battling alongside the Islamic State in the Levant.
Sultan Qaboos was one of the most influential, yet under-reported, figures in Middle Eastern politics and diplomacy, and his passing at a time of immense regional crisis will place pressure on the new Sultan.
In the longer term, Haitham will likely seek to diversify the Omani economy and continue the rapid pace of modernisation that was a hallmark of Qaboos’ reign. Haitham chairs the Oman 2040 Committee, which aims to create an economy free from hydrocarbon dependence, which has been especially difficult for the non-OPEC aligned Oman since the 2014 downturn in oil prices. Whilst still a net hydrocarbons producer, Oman holds the region’s smallest reserves and is less wealthy than other Gulf states such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
Domestically, Haitham will face challenges in the form of low economic growth (estimated to be 2.8% in 2020) combined with continued low oil prices, which between them have led to surging government deficits (expected to reach 2.5 billion Rials in 2020) and growing unemployment among the country’s large youth population. Left unchecked, these could lead to social unrest on an unmanageable scale.
Overall, His Royal Highness Sultan Haitham bin Tariq al Said has enormous shoes to fill. The late Sultan Qaboos was one of the most influential, yet under-reported, figures in Middle Eastern politics and diplomacy, and his passing at a time of immense regional crisis will place pressure on the new Sultan. For Haitham, emulating his predecessor and continuing with Oman’s independent and stable foreign policy course will be of utmost importance. Domestically, diversification is a critical necessity, however achieving this without falling prey to regional politics and deal-making will be the true test of the new Sultan’s abilities.
Suggested books for in-depth reading on this topic:
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- A Reformer on the Throne: Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said (Sergey Plekhanov)
- A History of Modern Oman (Jeremy Jones & Nicholas Ridout)
- The Gulf Crisis: Reshaping Alliances in The Middle East (Gulf International Forum)
- Saudi Arabia & Iran: Power and Rivalry in the Middle East (Simon Mabon)
- The Changing Security Dynamics of the Persian Gulf (Kristian Coates Ulrichsen)
- Statebuilding and Counterinsurgency in Oman (James Worrall)
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Lewis Tallon is a former British Army Intelligence Officer with extensive experience working and living in the Middle East and North Africa region and Asia Pacific in security, 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 & technology sectors.
For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.
Photo credit: NASA