Sultan Qaboos bin Said, the ruler of Oman, passed away Jan. 10. Oman is a country that barely registers when one thinks of the Middle East, but for good reasons. Under Qaboos’ leadership, Oman was transformed into an exemplary Middle Eastern state in practically all areas of development, including education, health, and economy. Moreover, Qaboos leveraged his nation’s diplomatic power and proximity to regional conflict zones to broker peace. While neighboring states seemed to invite discord, Oman sought stability. Qaboos’ named his cousin, Haitham bin Tariq Al Said, as his successor to the throne.
Following in Qaboos’ Footsteps
After assuming the mantle of sultan, Haitham vowed to “follow the same line as the late sultan, and the principles that he asserted for the foreign policy of our country, of peaceful coexistence among nations and people, and good neighborly behavior of non-interference in the affairs of others,” according to a Foreign Affairs report.
Haitham is no stranger to Oman – he served in the Foreign Ministry and as Heritage and Culture Minister. His appointment also does not come as a shock as he was widely believed to be the first choice as successor.
“He is described by those who have met him as quiet, steady, and a good listener,” Nikita Lalwani, Josh Rubin, and Sam Winter-Levy reported for Foreign Affairs.
In the past, the 65-year-old Haitham studied at the University of Oxford’s Foreign Service Programme. In addition to numerous Omani honours, he also received the Order of King Abdulaziz from Saudi Arabia, the Grand Decoration of Honour for Services to the Republic of Austria, and the Honorary Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order from Britain.
Curing an Oil Dependency
While Haitham by all accounts may be as well-liked as his predecessor, likability alone will not solve an oil crisis on the horizon. As is the case with most Middle Eastern states, Oman depends heavily on oil revenues. Haitham attempted to preempt the inevitable outcome of running out of oil while he served in the Foreign Ministry. If any faults can be found in the new ruler, it is his failure to carve out new sources of revenue for his nation.
Oil accounts for 70 to 85 percent of Oman’s revenues, according to Foreign Policy. A plan outlined by Qaboos, dubbed Vision 2020, was designed to diversify Oman’s economy, but now that the target year has arrived, the plan was extended to 2040. Haitham will have to grapple with creating a path for the future and thus far, no details have made clear what that might entail.
Despite the love of their late sultan, Omanis joined in the Arab Spring protests of 2011 to rally against corruption and unemployment. Qaboos responded by creating more government positions, which largely came through the Royal Oman Police.
Borrowing a page from the Saudi playbook, Oman instituted an “Omanization” programme designed to curtail migrant workers taking jobs that would otherwise go to Omani citizens. This has arguably hurt private companies more than it has helped citizens. Expats are still prevalent in the workforce, with more than 40 percent of the population being migrants. Often companies will either create unproductive positions for Omanis or simply reduce their foreign worker count and leave the positions unfilled.
While Haitham has inherited a significant economic problem, his predecessor proved even the most difficult and institutionalised problems can be overcome. Qaboos pushed for greater gender equality by giving females the right to vote in 2002, putting women in government posts, and overseeing an employment revolution in which women enjoy equality in opportunities and pay.
More broadly, Qaboos oversaw the rise of life expectancy from 50 years to 77. When he took the throne, the state had only 10 km of paved road and three schools. Now it boasts 29,000 km of paved roads and education can be considered among the best in the world with 96 percent adult literacy thanks to the establishing of 1,500 schools.
Diplomatically, Oman helped broker peace between Israel and Egypt, and it mediated talks between the US and Iran during the presidency of Barack Obama, which led to the Iranian nuclear deal.
Its relationship with the US, in particular, is storied, dating back to the first American president, George Washington. Oman was also the first Arab state to dispatch diplomats to America.
In short, Qaboos handed his successor a prosperous nation, even considering its oil dependence. Haitham, if he makes good on his word to follow the footsteps of his predecessor, will have an easier time than most of his regional neighbors. Continuing Oman’s tradition of peace and diplomacy will allow Haitham to focus his attention on overcoming economic problems, a luxury few are afforded in the current geopolitical climate.