In Oman, smooth transition likely to lead to steady course on foreign policy
DUBAI - The sultanate of Oman, positioned geographically and diplomatically between rival powers Iran and Saudi Arabia, earned outsised influence under the long reign of the late Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said.
As the health of the ruler declined and speculation turned to who would succeed him, there were questions over the future of Oman and its role as a valued mediator in a troubled region.
However, with the death of the 79-year-old sultan and the swift appointment of his like-minded cousin Hiatham bin Tariq Ai Said, 65, as his successor, observers said Oman appears on track to retain its treasured status as a neutral mediator.
To do so, Sultan Haitham will need to navigate tricky geopolitical terrain as well as address economic challenges facing his own country.
During his half-century reign, Sultan Qaboos thoroughly modernised Oman and forged a broader role as a go-between in regional and international crises. In the Iran nuclear crisis, Oman played a discreet role in the dialogue between Tehran and Washington, leading to the 2015 deal involving Western powers.
In his first speech as the Omani leader, Sultan Haitham pledged to follow in the footsteps of his influential predecessor. He expressed support for "our country's foreign policy of peaceful living among nations and peoples... and not interfering in the internal affairs of others" and he said Oman would continue to "promote peaceful solutions" to regional and global crises.
Sultan Qaboos was unmarried and had no apparent heir, meaning that succession was decided in a meeting of the royal family, whose members opted to open a sealed letter the sultan had prepared, detailing his preference.
The speed of the transition is seen as a sign that Sultan Haitham has the backing needed to steer the country and maintain its diplomatic standing.
"The sultanate of Oman will no doubt continue to follow the same policy, from which it has benefited so much," said Bader al-Saif, an assistant professor at Kuwait University and a fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Centre.
The royal family's prompt announcement is a "message to its citizens and neighbours to say that the situation is under control,” he said.
Apart from guiding Oman's foreign policy, Sultan Haitham faces the task of rolling out "Vision 2040," a plan for social and economic reforms designed to address high deficits, international debt and youth unemployment.
"The best guarantor of Oman's neutrality will be a successful economic restructuring that draws upon its people and avoids too much reliance on any other power," said Kristin Diwan, of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
Sultan Qaboos, slight in stature but usually resplendent in sumptuous robes and colourful turbans, was synonymous with Oman's international profile and many of the tributes since his death struck a warm and personal note.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who visited Muscat January 12 to pay his respects, recalled a meeting with Sultan Qaboos during which he was "struck by his commitment to peace and understanding between nations and between faiths."
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Twitter -- notably written in Arabic -- that Sultan Qaboos’s death was a "loss for the region."
Along with Zarif and Johnson, a ceremony January 12 at Muscat's Al Alam Palace drew figures from across political divides in the Middle East, including Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan and Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani.
Sultan Haitham also welcomed Britain's Prince Charles, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Tunisian President Kais Saied, among others.
Observers said that, despite his personal profile, Oman's diplomatic expertise and its willingness to provide a discreet venue for delicate negotiations, goes well beyond Sultan Qaboos.
In a region where the push and pull between Iran and Saudi Arabia is constant, analysts say it is in Oman's interests to signal the transition does not present an opportunity for one of the powers to pull it to its side.
Sultan Haitham has an "interest to present himself as someone who is going to... continue the legacy of a leader, such as [Sultan] Qaboos, who was considered to be successful," said Sanam Vakil, from Chatham House think-tank in London.
"The message of continuity is very important because Oman faces economic vulnerabilities as well as challenges within the (Gulf) with anxieties about the past few years, where we've seen a very assertive Emirati and Saudi foreign policy."
Sultan Haitham takes power at a time when aggressive foreign policy, which has seen Saudi Arabia and its ally the United Arab Emirates embroiled in a grinding 5-year-old conflict in Yemen, is showing signs of dialling back.
Oman refrained from joining the Saudi-led coalition fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen and leveraged that neutrality to mediate the release of foreign hostages. It also remained neutral in the boycott against Qatar mounted by Saudi Arabia and its allies that saw diplomatic and transport ties cut in June 2017.
"There is a strong rationale for balance and neutrality, rooted in its geography looking towards the Arabian Sea and history of independence from Gulf neighbours," Diwan said. "The new leadership will draw strongly upon Sultan Qaboos's authority as it looks to navigate the difficult regional conflicts and economic challenges."