Sultan Qaboos bin Said died recently at the age of 79. The enigmatic Sultan skillfully led Oman since he overthrew his father, with Britain’s help, in 1970. Haitham bin Tariq Al Said, Qaboos’s 66-year old cousin and Minister of Culture, was swiftly named the new Sultan on Saturday. Haitham’s name was in a sealed, secret envelope that Qaboos left behind naming his successor.
Stability in an unstable region
Qaboos, and Oman, have been pillars of stability in a normally fraught region. After defeating an insurgency in the Dhofar region of Oman — which borders Yemen in the south — early in his reign, Qaboos led a remarkable modernization program within Oman. With barely any paved roads when he took power, he implemented infrastructure and education programs that have led to a more vibrant nation today. In stark contrast to its Gulf neighbors in the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Bahrain, Oman has also done a remarkable job of maintaining its cultural heritage — you won’t see any glitzy skyscrapers dotting the Muscat skyline.
He may have been a “benevolent dictator,” but there was also no doubt that he thoroughly controlled Oman. He was not only the Sultan, but also the head of the defense and foreign ministries, and prime minister, among other titles. He did not rule with an iron fist, but he was in complete control of his country. Omanis were amenable to this, for the most part, through the bulk of Qaboos’s rule because he lifted the nation out of poverty in only a few decades. But, in 2011, rising youth unemployment and the coming of age of a generation of Omanis who didn’t remember the days before Qaboos, led to a number of Arab Spring protests throughout the country. Qaboos was quick to implement a number of governmental reforms that were more show than substance, but it worked thus far.
Qaboos was undoubtedly important for the growth of the nation that he led for 50 years, but he was almost equally as important for the regional role that he played. Part of the reason Oman has been so stable in recent decades is because the nation is so moderate and open, which stems from two main points. First, Omanis practice a form of Islam known as Ibadism, which is a more tolerant and open sect of the religion. Second, Oman’s position on the Arabian Sea made it a key waypoint for traders throughout the centuries, which led to a more cosmopolitan viewpoint along its coasts.
This history and cultural heritage put Oman in a prime position to be, what they term, “the friend to all and the enemy to none.” Qaboos played this role to perfection over the years. Unlike his Gulf Cooperation Council allies, the Sultan was able to maintain extremely friendly ties with Iran, both in the days of the Shah and of the ayatollahs. Iran provided a large number of troops to help quell the Dhofar rebellion in the early 1970s, something Qaboos never forgot.
Qaboos was more than a regional mediator, as he also proved indispensable for the United States and Western nations. His mediation led to the 2011 release of three American hikers who had been arrested in Iran. He refused to join the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthi movement in Yemen, and Muscat has been a key mediation site in the ongoing war. Arguably most important, Qaboos played the role of mediator and host in 2013 for the secret U.S.-Iranian talks that eventually led to the larger nuclear agreement.
Qaboos’s death leaves a hole in the region
The Omanis, and the new Sultan, were quick to come out and confirm that their foreign policy will remain the same under the new leadership. In his first public statement, Haitham stated that Oman “will 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.”
This is a positive first step, but Oman is unlikely to have the same sway that it had under Qaboos. Haitham will probably not receive the same amount of leeway in domestic affairs that the late Sultan enjoyed due to his popularity and track record of progress in Oman. This is especially apparent when one considers Oman’s large youth population and an economy that is in the beginning stages of diversifying away from oil. More importantly, while he has had some interactions on the regional and international stage, the new Sultan can do nothing in the short-term to make up for Qaboos’s decades of experience and the hard-earned respect he had garnered. As the Yemen conflict continues to rage and the U.S.-Iranian relationship is arguably at its lowest point in decades, one can only hope that Haitham is a fast learner. It would be smart for Oman’s two closest Western allies, the United States and Great Britain, to reach out to work with the new leader as soon as possible.