Succession in Oman and the

Emergence of Sultan Haitham bin Tariq

by Nikola Zukalová

The Sultanate of Oman, the oldest independent state in the Arabian Peninsula, has a new ruler: Sultan Haitham bin Tariq Al-Said, cousin of the late Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al-Said, who died of illness on 10 January 2020, aged 79. Haitham’s accession to the throne was very different from that of late Qaboos’. Angered by the isolationism, governmental restrictions, and inability to effectively use Oman’s newfound oil reserves for the country’s development, Qaboos toppled his father, Sultan Said bin Taimur (1932-1970), in 1970 and initiated the process of modernisation and opening to the world, earning the country a role as an important regional actor, safeguarding the strategic Strait of Hormuz.[1] Sultan Qaboos himself did not have any children and the uncertainty over the successor threatened to create a political vacuum. Considering Oman’s history of coups and power struggles within the royal family and the complex regional geopolitical situation, the Sultan decided to design a unique succession process, specified in the 1996 Basic Law, to avoid domestic infighting and external pressures on the candidate and prevent descent into instability.[2] The Royal Family Council members would meet and select the successor after Qaboos’ death from the eligible candidates. The vague criteria (male descendant of Sayyid Turki bin Said bin Sultan, Muslim, mature and rational, and a legitimate son of Omani Muslim parents) narrowed down the number of candidates to several dozen, although it was widely spoken about three main candidates—Qaboos’ first cousins and sons of Tariq bin Taimur.[3] In case that the family could not reach consensus within three days, the Defence Council would unseal an envelope containing a name of the new ruler chosen by Qaboos himself.[4] On 11 January, a few hours from Qaboos’ death, the Royal Family Council decided to go immediately with the late Sultan’s will, appointing Haitham bin Tariq as the new Sultan.[5] Given that Qaboos reigned for 50 years, about 88% of the country’s 2.3 million Omanis have not lived under another ruler, which increases the pressure on Sultan Haitham’s performance.[6]

 

Who is the New Sultan and What is his Experience?

 

Haitham bin Tariq Al-Said, born in 1954, was one of the three persons seen as the most probable candidates for the throne. Unlike the other two candidates — his two brothers, Asad and Shihab,  — Haitham does not have a military background. Shihab, former Commander of Oman’s Navy, became Sultan’s advisor in 2004, while Asad is Brigadier-General, shortly commanded Sultan’s Armoured Corps, before being appointed Sultan’s Special Representative in early 2000s and Oman’s Deputy Prime Minister in 2017.[7] Their grandfather, Taimur bin Faisal, ruled Oman between 1913 and 1932.[8] Haitham’s father, Tariq bin Taimur, served as Qaboos’ first Prime Minister and formed the Sultanate’s first Cabinet before becoming the Governor of the Central Bank in 1974.[9] Until 1970, Oman did not have any diplomatic representation abroad. Tariq’s popularity and contacts helped Oman to establish relations with Arab neighbours and other countries and gaining international diplomatic recognition, which came with its swift admission to the United Nations and Arab League in 1971.[10]

 

Haitham has had a long diplomatic experience. A 1979 graduate of Oxford’s Foreign Service Programme, he rose through the ranks as Undersecretary for Political Affairs at the Foreign Ministry in the mid-1980's (1986-1994), becoming the Secretary General (the Ministry’s second most senior official) in 1994 (1994-2002). During his career at the Foreign Ministry, Oman’s foreign policy approach was tested and shaped by some watershed events, including the Iraq-Iran War (1980-1988), Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent Gulf War (1990/1), the collapse of the Soviet Union, rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the 1990’s, the Yemen civil war, and the beginning of the Global War on Terror. Recognising Beijing’s influence in the Gulf, Haitham for example discussed steps to deescalate regional tensions following the Iran-Iraq war with China’s Foreign Minister, Wu Xueqian, in September 1988.[11] Under Haitham’s leadership as Minister of Heritage and Culture, Oman was able to inscribe two cultural sites, Aflaj irrigation systems (2006) and Ancient City of Qalha (2018), to the UNESCO World Heritage list.[12] Additionally, he has overseen the implementation of the Sultanate’s 20-year economic and social reform plan as Chairman of the Main Committee of Oman’s Vision 2040.[13] The hands-on involvement in the Sultanate’s reforms as well as rich diplomatic experience in times of tension will prove valuable for Sultan Haitham’s reign.

External and Domestic Challenges

 

The new Sultan will be confronted with numerous internal (economic) and external (diplomatic) challenges. He takes over at a time of heightened tensions between Iran and the United States, following the US airstrike which killed Iran’s Al Quds Force Commander, Qassem Soleimani, in Iraq and Tehran’s missile response, which threatened to turn Iraq into a battleground for a US-Iran conflict. Under Sultan Qaboos, Oman assumed the role of neutral interlocutor in regional crises, able to open backchannels due to fostering relations with all regional actors. Sultan Haitham vowed in his inaugural speech continuity of Qaboos’ foreign policy of pragmatic balancing.[14] Oman will continue to act as an interlocutor between regional foes. In the past few years, Oman hosted leaders from Israel, Iran, United States, secret US-Iran talks that led to the Iran Nuclear Deal, and along with Kuwait it tried to mediate in the Qatar crisis. Oman has developed strong historic relations with the United Kingdom, sealed by the signing mutual defence pact in February 2019, and the United States, with whom it has sealed the relations with the Strategic Framework Agreement a month later.[15] Muscat has also played an important part in facilitating the efforts to find political resolution to the war in Yemen, which represents a serious security threat, lending backing to the United Nations’ led initiatives.

 

Domestically, Sultan Haitham will need to embark on delivering economic and social reforms. Although, the current domestic situation in Oman is much more stable than when Qaboos inherited the rebellion in the southernmost Dhofar Province (1963-1976), it is vulnerable to the effects of the civil war in neighbouring Yemen. Yemen’s easternmost Mahra governorate has largely managed to stay out of the conflict, shielding the Sultanate from direct contact with the fighting, but Yemeni refugees, aid and medical treatment provision is financially challenging.[16] This adds to Oman’s already precarious economic situation. The Sultanate desperately needs economic reforms as it relies on hydrocarbon resources for about 75% of its revenues.[17] Sultan Haitham will need to push for shifting the Sultanate away from oil, continue the privatisation efforts, while also addressing the needs of the large young generation and navigating potential social upheaval in case of decreasing oil revenues. The smooth succession process sends a positive message to the international community that will translate well in Oman’s reputation as a politically stable country, attractive for tourists and foreign investors. Yet, Sultan Haitham will inevitably be constantly compared to the late Sultan and although being Qaboos’ choice gave him legitimacy, he will still need to prove himself to the people and earn their trust. If Qaboos’ legacy is a modern Sultanate built from the oil wealth and independent neutral foreign policy, Sultan Haitham may take on building his legacy on the implementation of socio-economic reforms and navigating Oman towards a post-oil economy. However, only time will tell how will Sultan Haitham takes on those responsibilities.

Notes

[1] The New York Times. “Sultan of Muscat and Oman Is Overthrown by Son.” 27 July 1970, p. 4. Digitalised version: https://www.nytimes.com/1970/07/27/archives/sultan-of-muscat-and-oman-is-overthrown-by-son.html;

Miller, Judith, “Creating Modern Oman: An Interview with Sultan Qabus,” May/June 1997, Foreign Affairs. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/oman/1997-05-01/creating-modern-oman-interview-sultan-qabus.

[2] Simon Henderson states that at least five Oman’s leaders have been overthrown or assassinated since the 1850s. See: Henderson, Simon. “Oman After Qaboos: A National and Regional Void.” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Policy Note 74, December 2019, p. 2. https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/uploads/Documents/pubs/PolicyNote74-Henderson-v2.pdf.

[3] “Royal Decree No. (101/96) Promulgating the Basic Statute of the State.” Article 5. Ministry Of Legal Affairs, Sultanate of Oman. http://www.mola.gov.om/eng/basicstatute.aspx.

[4] “Royal Decree No. (101/96) Promulgating the Basic Statute of the State.” Article 6.

[5] Oman Observer. “Royal family fulfils late HM’s will.” 11 January 2020. https://www.omanobserver.om/royal-family-fulfils-late-hms-will/.

[6] Calculated based on the data from Oman’s National Centre for Statistics and Information for Omanis aged 0-49 (2018): https://data.gov.om/OMPOP2016/population.

[7] Valeri, Marc. Oman: Politics and Society in the Qaboos State. London: Hurst & Company Publishers, 2009, p. 97.

[8] Kechichian, Joseph A. Oman and the World: The Emergence of an Independent Foreign Policy. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 1995, p. 4.

[9] Kechichian, Joseph A. Oman and the World: The Emergence of an Independent Foreign Policy, p. 50.

[10] Kechichian, Joseph A. “Oman and the World: The Emergence of an Independent Foreign Policy.” p. 7-8, 38, 48.

[11] Kechichian, Joseph A. “Oman and the World: The Emergence of an Independent Foreign Policy.” p. 195.

[12] UNESCO World Heritage Centre. “Oman: Properties inscribed on the World Heritage List (5).” https://whc.unesco.org/en/statesparties/om.

[13] Times of Oman. “2040 vision committee discusses views and suggestions on Vision document.” 14 May 2019. https://timesofoman.com/article/1285743/Oman/Main-committee-for-Oman-Vision-2040-meets

[14] The National. “Haitham bin Tariq sworn in as new Sultan of Oman.” 11 January 2020. https://www.thenational.ae/world/mena/haitham-bin-tariq-sworn-in-as-new-sultan-of-oman-1.962667.

[15] Ministry of Defence, United Kingdom. “UK and Oman sign historic Joint Defence Agreement.” 21 February 2019. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/uk-and-oman-sign-historic-joint-defence-agreement;

U.S. Embassy in Oman. “U.S. Statement on the Signing of the Strategic Framework Agreement.” 24 March 2019. https://om.usembassy.gov/u-s-statement-on-the-signing-of-the-strategic-framework-agreement/ 

[16] Al Shaibany, Saleh. “Oman provides sanctuary for Yemenis fleeing conflict.” The National. 5 March 2017. https://www.thenational.ae/world/oman-provides-sanctuary-for-yemenis-fleeing-conflict-1.30420.

[17] Ministry of Finance Sultanate of Oman. “2020 Budget: Statement on State’s General Budget for Fiscal Year 2020.” 1 January 2020, p. 26. https://www.mof.gov.om/Portals/1/documents/Financial-reports/The-state-budget/2020/2020(Eng).pdf.

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