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By choosing a successor, Qaboos has both blessed and cursed Oman’s new sultan

No Omani royalist will question the new ruler, Haitham bin Tariq's right to rule, but from here on, he will be judged by his performance.

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In the summer of 2018, arguing that death was the surest agent of change in the Middle East, I included Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said in the list of four leaders whose passing would shake up the region. The three others were King Salman bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei of Iran and Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani of Iraq.

Noting Oman’s unusual succession mechanism — Qaboos would nominate an heir in a sealed letter, to be opened upon his death, but only if his extended family couldn’t arrive at a consensus among themselves — I predicted that “a process so peculiar can hardly be expected to proceed smoothly.”

I was dead wrong. After Qaboos’s passing last week, the succession proceeded smoothly and swiftly. The family decided not even to try for a consensus: Instead, the envelope was unsealed, and the late sultan’s choice, his cousin Haitham bin Tariq, enthroned.

Whether this decision represents a shirking of responsibility by the family or a voluntary renunciation of privilege, the reasoning behind it is simple. The grandees, aware that Oman faces a perfect storm of economic and geopolitical upheavals, felt they could ill afford a potentially divisive debate over the succession. It was imperative to preserve the consensus that Qaboos had built over five decades.

Haitham’s reign begins with both the blessing and the curse of Qaboos. Since he was the late sultan’s choice, no Omani royalist can question his right to rule, a good position from which to begin negotiating that perfect storm.

But the new ruler will find that political legitimacy is subject to the law of diminishing returns: From here on, he will be judged by his performance. To make matters even more difficult, Haitham’s performance will be measured against the very high bar set by his predecessor.

Under Qaboos, Oman had five decades of political stability, which is rare enough for the region. More impressive still, it enjoyed an astonishing streak of economic growth. It is the only Middle Eastern country, and one of only 13 anywhere in the world in the postwar period, to have grown at 7% annually for 25 years.

These achievements, combined with Qaboos’s innate skills as a diplomat, allowed Oman to become the go-between of choice for squabbles in a very contentious neighborhood, even for the confrontation between a superpower and a regional one. There is a straight line from Qaboos’s mediation between the U.S. and Iran to the 2015 nuclear deal.

Although Haitham has vowed to maintain his country’s position as a regional peacemaker, he may not be expected to play Qaboos’s role in the current confrontation between the Trump administration and the Islamic Republic. At the moment, it is not clear that the two parties want an honest broker. If they did, there are other candidates, ranging from Kuwait’s ailing Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

This should be a relief for the new sultan, enabling him to concentrate on Omani matters. These are twofold: economic difficulties at home, and tensions with the neighboring United Arab Emirates.

The hot growth streak is now a receding memory: Recent years have been difficult. A Bloomberg survey of economists suggests Oman’s economy will expand by 1.5% in 2019 and 2.8% in 2020. Its finances hobbled by low oil prices, the country plans to borrow $5.2 billion to plug a hole in its 2020 budget.

Relations with the UAE have been strained. Muscat has periodically accused Abu Dhabi of espionage and attempts to undermine the sultanate. The UAE and Saudi Arabia were unhappy about Oman’s decision to stay out of their quarrel with Qatar, and are suspicious of its ties to Iran and, more recently, to Israel.

Qaboos’s stature meant no other ruler in the Gulf Cooperation Council openly questioned his motives. Now, as the new kid on the block, Haitham will undoubtedly come under greater pressure. Having conferred on him the blessings of Qaboos, his family — and his country — can only hope that he escapes the accompanying curse. – Bloomberg

Also read: Longest running Arab monarch, Sultan Qaboos, dies after years of battling illness


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  1. Late Sultan Qaboos Bin Said has made Oman what Oman is today. He has raised the country like his own family, like his children. And he knew best for the country. He has made well calculated decision before choosing the new Sultan of Oman. Ofcourse, the late Sultan cannot be compared to any, not in the region, not in the world. But the new Sultan is the first choice of the Late Sultan Qaboos Bin Said and we trust that his decision will be right. The country is sad with the loss of our beloved Sultan but we also accept the new Sultan of Oman wholeheartedly with all respect. The respect which the people had given to the Late Sultan, the same will be given to the new Sultan. The country will definately support the new Sultan in every way. We trust the decision of our Late Sultan Qaboos Bin Said. God bless him.

  2. The new ruler has a the blessing of his citizens . The citizens of Oman , their hospitality, manner, humility are the best in the world. Something that citizens of India should emulate and look up to.

  3. I will trust Sultan Qaboos’s wisdom and choice more than anything.. He not only obviously foresaw and factored for all these difficulties while selecting his successor, but also had the highest incentive of securing posterity for his legendary wisdom & rule. Sultan Haitham will be successful.

  4. The new ruler in my opinion may take up the living standard of Omanis above d benchmark of his predecessor. First he will look into domestic issues. Opening of economy, bringing FDI into Oman in real estate, infrastructure and entertainment could be effective. Oman has great potential for Tourism. More emphasis on it is required to be given which will attract tourists from Asia as well as other countries.

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