A friend of everyone and enemy to none. Such was the underlying foreign policy of Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said during his nearly 50-year rule of Oman in the increasingly divided and tense Arabian Gulf region.
Sultan Qaboos died on January 10, 2020, at the age of 79 after battling what many believe was colon cancer for many years. His death brought a profound sense of loss to his people, who considered him a revered and irreplaceable father of modern Oman. He enjoyed deep respect both at home and abroad.
Boris Johnson, who paid a visit to Muscat on January 12, 2020, as an expression of his respect to the longtime leader, said that he was “deeply saddened” by his death, stressing that the sultan “will be missed enormously.” Foreign Minister of Iran, Mohammad Javad Zarif, tweeted – in Arabic no less – that Sultan Qaboos’s death was a “loss for the region.” Zarif also visited Muscat to pay his respects to the deceased sultan.
Other prominent leaders who attended a ceremony in Muscat were UK’s Prince Charles, Tunisian President Kais Saied, and former President of France Nicolas Sarkozy. The mourning of Sultan Qaboos’s demise by such a diverse group of world leaders highlights his legacy of being a unifier, a necessary diplomat at times of crisis, and a supporter of regional and global peace, which were evidenced time and time again during his life.
Sultan Qaboos came to power in July 1970 after waging a successful bloodless coup against his father with the help of Great Britain; Oman was a British protectorate then. Only 30 years old in 1970, Qaboos was disappointed with his father’s handling of rebels in Oman’s southern Dhofar province. The rebels sought independence from the rule of the Omani royalty and stood against British power in the Gulf region. It took him six years to end the Dhofari insurgency with the help of Jordan, Iran, and Britain. He used carrots together with military means to crush it and he enticed the rebels with government jobs. He also implemented a comprehensive urbanization of the Dhofar province.
Having inherited a country with no infrastructure, governmental institutions or social services, Sultan Qaboos used his country’s oil revenues to transform it into a thriving modern economy with developed state institutions.
Having inherited a country with no infrastructure, governmental institutions or social services, the new sultan used his country’s oil revenues to transform it into a thriving modern economy with developed state institutions. He built a viable nation state. He also created one of the best trained military forces in the Gulf region. However, elderly and ailing Sultan Qaboos struggled to diversify the heavily oil-based economy in recent years, which has been faltering due to the global low oil price environment.
Sultan Qaboos’s achievements were not confined to modernization of his country. His passion for diplomacy and peace in the Middle East has made him into a powerful regional and global leader. He played an important role during crucial events of war and peace. For example, he kept relations and dialogue with the U.S. and Iran after the embassy hostage crisis in Iran in 1979. He maintained ties with both Iraq and Iran during their eight-year war. Years later, Oman held secret negotiations between the U.S. and Iran that resulted in the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal.
As the regional rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia heated up in recent years, Muscat has declined to take sides, much to the chagrin of the Saudi leadership and its ally the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Sultan Qaboos’s refusal to back the Saudi-led coalition against Iran-supported Houthi rebels in Yemen or to join the blockade against Qatar won him no friends in Saudi Arabia or UAE. Reportedly, UAE has purposely delayed the construction of the UAE-Oman rail network as part of its pressure on Oman to pick sides.
On January 11, 2020, Haitham bin Tariq was sworn in as a new ruler. Because Sultan Qaboos was unmarried and had no children, he picked Haitham, his cousin, as his successor.
On January 11, 2020, Haitham bin Tariq, Oman’s former Minister of Culture, was sworn in as a new ruler. Because Sultan Qaboos was unmarried and had no children, he picked Haitham, his cousin, as his successor. Bin Tariq has played a key role in Oman’s economic sector. He has overseen a program called Vision 2040 since 2013, which aims to implement social and economic reforms. He played an important role in rebuilding numerous historical monuments in the country. He has also earned years of foreign affairs experience during his service at Oman’s foreign ministry.
The announcement of Haitham bin Tariq’s as a new royal head of state came as a surprise to many Omanis, who expected that Asad bin Tariq al-Said, also a member of the royal family, would become a successor. With military background, Asad bin Tariq has been the sultan’s Special Representative and Deputy Prime Minister for External Relations.
Sultan Qaboos’s choice of Haitham bin Tariq as his successor meant that he wanted a leader with more economic credentials, particularly in the midst of high unemployment and fiscal challenges. Importantly, Sultan Qaboos sought continuity of his policy of neutrality and promotion of peace in the region, which cultured and diplomatic Haitham bin Tariq has vowed to honor during his speech on January 11.
The new sultan faces the challenges of carrying out significant economic reforms to maintain domestic stability and continuing his predecessor’s legacy of neutral peacemaker.
The death of Sultan Qaboos happened during strong tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia as well as a domestic economic downturn. The new sultan faces the challenges of carrying out significant economic reforms to maintain domestic stability and continuing his predecessor’s legacy of neutral peacemaker.
With falling revenues from low oil prices, Oman has been borrowing to keep the economy afloat earning lower credit ratings. The country is unlikely to end its borrowing until more reforms, including possible austerity measures, are implemented soon. Meanwhile, the fiscal deficit is expected to worsen.
Given the dependence on external financing, Sultan Haitham bin Tariq may seek additional loans from international institutions and neighboring countries, which are likely to come with political strings attached.
Relatively unknown beyond Oman, Sultan Haitham has yet to earn the gravitas and authority of Sultan Qaboos on the international stage to command influence in regional and global affairs. At the time of domestic political transition and economic difficulties in Oman, Saudi Arabia and UAE are likely to put more pressure on the new sultan to abandon neutrality and side with their anti-Iran policies. Under such pressures, he will walk a fine line to maintain his country’s treasured legacy of neutrality, while trying to reform the domestic economy without causing too much pain and discontent.