The death of Sultan Qaboos bin Said on Jan. 10, after nearly 50 years of rule over Oman, has removed one of the great "moderates" from the scene just as soaring tensions between the United States and Iran nearly escalated into another Persian Gulf conflict.
In power since he ousted his father in a nearly bloodless palace coup in July 1970, Sultan Qaboos steered Oman through a period of rapid socio-economic modernization even as he kept a tight grip over the levers of political control. The centralization of authority in Qaboos, coupled with his refusal to publicly name a successor, gave rise to persistent speculation over succession as the sultan aged. (He was 79 when he died.) In the event, the transition to the new sultan, Haitham bin Tariq Al Said, a first cousin of Qaboos, proceeded rapidly and smoothly, just as Omani officials had quietly predicted it would.
One of three brothers long considered by Oman-watchers as the likeliest candidates for succession, Haitham was born in 1954 and represents a careful generational transition as he has accumulated more than 30 years of policymaking experience in senior government roles. Early in his career, Haitham served for 16 years in the Omani Ministry of Foreign Affairs, including eight as its secretary-general, between 1994 and 2002, and since then served as minister of national heritage and culture. His profile rose further in 2013 when Qaboos appointed him chair of a committee entrusted with developing Oman Vision 2040, the successor economic plan to Vision 2020, which Qaboos had launched in 1995 as the first of the long-range "visions" that now dominate the economic landscape in all six of the Gulf states.
As a senior and experienced member of the Omani royal family and grandson of a former sultan, Taimur bin Faisal, who ruled what was then the Sultanate of Muscat and Oman from 1913 to 1932, Haitham will endeavor to stamp his own imprint on a country that has become synonymous with Qaboos and a society that mostly has known no other ruler. Having seized power at a dangerous time for Oman, then in the middle of a 10-year Marxist-backed rebellion in the southwestern province of Dhofar, Qaboos embarked on a highly personalistic program of nation-building after the rebellion was defeated in 1975. This included annual "Meet the People" tours where the sultan and his advisers would spend weeks traveling through Oman and sitting with Omanis of all backgrounds to hear and redress any grievances or issues they had, as well as rehabilitating and reintegrating former dissidents, including Yusuf bin Alawi, Oman’s minister responsible for foreign affairs since 1997, but an active member of the Dhofar Liberation Front in the 1960s. The national narrative that emerged also contrasted the years of progress under Qaboos with the period of darkness that preceded it and cast the 1970 takeover as Oman’s renaissance.
While the decisive and speedy nature of the transition from Qaboos to Haitham belied external observers’ concern for the opacity of the succession process, the new sultan will inevitably find it a challenge to replicate the charismatic political authority that Qaboos enjoyed as the "father of the nation." In constructing an Omani narrative so closely bound with his own legacy of leadership, the visibility of the process of naming Haitham as sultan is an attempt to imbue the new sultan with immediate legitimacy as Qaboos’ choice of heir. Yet, at some point, and perhaps sooner rather than later, Haitham is likely to face many of the same economic challenges that built up in the final years of Qaboos’ rule, and without the protective veneer of untouchability that most all Omanis attached to Qaboos. Public anger over sluggish economic performance and perceptions of corruption triggered protests in 2011, during the Arab Spring, and may yet do so again. The fact that Haitham was himself an active businessman, and associated with Blue City, a failed mega-project controversially bought out by the state after it ran into difficulties in 2012, may also make it harder for him to remain above the fray if tensions ever rise.
In regional affairs, Haitham immediately pledged to follow Qaboos’ policy of peaceful coexistence with all nations and commitment to good neighborliness. Oman’s longstanding refusal to pick sides or get involved in regional conflicts and standoffs enabled Qaboos to carve a reputation as a facilitator able to pass messages and create the conditions for dialogue between adversaries such as the United States and Iran, between 2011 and 2013 and, in 2019, between Saudi officials and Houthi representatives. Omani facilitation was crucial in enabling the talks that grew into the P5+1 negotiation with Iran and culminated in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015. It is a sad irony that the final days of Qaboos’ life were marked by the spiraling of tensions between the United States and Iran after President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the JCPOA in 2018 and initiated an ill-thought-out "maximum pressure" campaign intended to further isolate and squeeze Iran.
The de-escalatory messages passed through a European intermediary prior to Iran’s Jan. 8 missile strike against US targets in Iraq provided a timely reminder of the need for a respected "third-party" that can keep open channels of communication and prevent or minimize the chances of an accidental miscalculation that could trigger further conflict in the region. It remains to be seen whether Oman under Sultan Haitham continues to perform this role, just as it will also be instructive to see whether any of Oman’s more assertive neighbors seek to sway Haitham to align more closely with their own approach to regional Gulf politics. Omani officials have watched very closely the two rounds of tension in the Gulf between the trio of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates and Qatar in 2014 and again since 2017, and are acutely aware that the pressure on Qatar began within weeks of a new emir coming to power. These regional uncertainties mean that Haitham’s first moves as sultan will be followed with great interest in capitals on both sides of the Gulf as Oman adapts to life in the post-Qaboos era.