Oman’s new leader aims for sta­tus quo

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - NATION | WORLD - By Ben Hub­bard

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.

AFP / Getty Im­ages

Haitham bin Tariq Al Said, Oman’s new ruler, has had a long ca­reer in pub­lic life.

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