Oman’s ruler of 50 years, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, was declared dead late on Friday. He was 79. Sultan Qaboos received treatment for colon cancer for years. A few days ago, however, he cut short a visit to Switzerland where he was receiving treatment and returned to his country. On Friday, the disease finally defeated him, ending an important chapter in Oman’s life.
Hundreds of thousands of Omanis and tens of millions of Arabs watched as sultan Qaboos’ body was carried on the road to its last resting place in the Omani capital, Muscat. Haitham bin Tariq was then declared the new sultan of Oman, in a smooth transition in a country whose political waters remained stable for the past five decades.
Haitham was hand-picked by the late sultan after the failure of the board of the royal family in settling on a successor. According to the Omani constitution, the board of the royal family takes three days to select the new sultan if the post is vacant. In case it fails in doing this, the board of the royal family refers the whole matter to the incumbent sultan, if he is alive.
Haitham is not new to either the royal court or government work in Oman. Before being picked to be the new sultan, Haitham was the minister of culture of his country. He is a cousin of the late sultan, but he also occupied a long number of official positions that qualify him to steer his country in the coming period.
Haitham ‘s fast-paced selection for the job demonstrated unity within the royal family. There were fears inside and outside Oman that the selection of the new sultan would cause rifts within this Gulf state. Haitham, 66, has a quiet personality. He is a graduate of Oxford University in the UK.
Addressing his countrymen following his swearing in, Haitham said he would follow in the footsteps of his predecessor when it comes to his country’s relations with other countries.
Whether Haitham will find it easy to follow in the footsteps of sultan Qaboos will be seen in the coming days. The late sultan took over the helm of his country in 1970. This was when Oman was a little developed state. However, Oman is a very modern state as sultan Qaboos leaves it. The late sultan used oil revenues in revamping all of his country’s sectors and infrastructure.
At the political level, sultan Qaboos succeeded in making his country a cornerstone of regional and international politics. Sultan Qaboos’ Oman was a main mediator in most of the region’s conflicts. It was friends with all adversaries. It was friends with Iran, and friends with its archenemy, Saudi Arabia. In October 2018, the late sultan showed the length to which he was ready to go in breaking Arab political taboos, when he received Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Muscat.
The tough nature of Sultan Haitham’s mission emanates from the difficulty of repeating the distinguished record of his predecessor as well as from the enormity of regional turbulence.
The Middle East is awash with conflicts and economic devastation. In Yemen, just on Oman’s southern border, a war rages on between the Iran-backed Houthi militia which has overrun most of the poor Arab country and kicked its legitimate government out, on one hand, and a coalition led by Saudi Arabia, on the other. Oman is also located in close proximity to Iran where the whole world is looking now, especially with the showdown between the US and the international community, on one hand, and the Islamic Republic, on the other, entering a new stage after the January 8 downing of the Ukrainian passenger plane.
The new sultan will have to chart a policy that protects his country from being mired in all these conflicts, but also one that keeps it involved. Can he do this? The coming days will provide the answer.