Oman’s new leader aims for status quo
BEIRUT — The Persian Gulf nation of Oman named a new leader Saturday, an Oxford-educated veteran of public service who pledged to continue his predecessor’s quiet diplomacy between global foes.
Haitham bin Tariq Al Said succeeds Sultan Qaboos, a towering figure who ruled Oman for nearly 50 years. He oversaw its development and pioneered a foreign policy based on good relations with a range of countries, including the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Israel and Iran.
Qaboos’ death was announced earlier Saturday. He was 79.
The peaceful transition of power in Oman took place amid heightened tensions between the U.S. and Iran that have threatened to ignite a new war in the Middle East. The handover proceeded as planned, with much of the process aired live on state television.
Haitham, 65, has had a long career in public life, working in the foreign ministry and assisting with programs aimed at diversifying the country’s economy away from oil. He most recently served as culture minister. He is a cousin of the late sultan.
He comes to power as a number of conflicts swirl in the Middle East and as his government faces growing economic stress at home. In an address on Omani state television, Haitham vowed to continue his predecessor’s practice of not interfering in the affairs of other countries while working for peace between them.
“We will continue to assist in resolving disputes peacefully,” he said.
Oman, a country of 4.6 million on the southeastern corner of the Arabian Peninsula, has long served as an island of neutrality in a region rife with sectarian and political conflicts.
While an oil producer, it is less wealthy than other Gulf states such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and it has maintained good relations with countries shunned by its Arab neighbors, such as Israel and Iran.
It shares borders with Yemen, where a war involving Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — two of its other neighbors — continues to rage. It has hosted peace talks with Yemen’s Houthi rebels.
It has long-standing ties to Western nations such as the U.S. and Britain but also with Iran.
Michael Stephens, a research fellow for the Middle East at the Royal United Services Institute, said he expected the new sultan to largely stick with his predecessor’s foreign policy to keep the country safe.
“Oman is in this mixing bowl where they can’t really lean either way because of their historical relationships and their geographic position,” he said. “Oman survives by being quiet, not by being noisy, and I don’t see why he would tear up that playbook.”
The new sultan’s greatest challenges could be at home, where economic stagnation combined with low oil prices have led to large government deficits and rising unemployment among the country’s large youth population.
Haitham has helped lead efforts to diversify Oman’s economy, though with limited success. Experts see him continuing that effort.
“Sultan Qaboos created a modern economy from scratch. Sultan Haitham will now need to reform that economy in order to ‘right the ship,’” said Elana DeLozier, a research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“Oman suffers from significant economic challenges, and these can foster social problems if left unresolved,” she added. “The economy will be the primary challenge domestically for the new sultan in the near term.”
Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, who studies Gulf politics at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, said Saturday’s transition sent a message of continuity both to Omanis and to other countries that may have hoped that the new sultan would adopt policies more to their liking.
Haitham bin Tariq Al Said, Oman’s new ruler, has had a long career in public life.