Oman’s Sultan Haitham introduces major reforms, includes appointment of crown prince

A royal decree establishes new mechanisms reducing the centralisation of power and strengthening oversight and independence of the judiciary.
Tuesday 12/01/2021
Sultan Haitham bin Tariq Al Said gives a speech  in Muscat, Oman, January 11, 2020. (Reuters)
Sultan Haitham bin Tariq Al Said gives a speech in Muscat, Oman, January 11, 2020. (Reuters)

MUSCAT - Oman has taken a big leap towards establishing a mechanism for the smooth transfer of power as Sultan Haitham bin Tariq Al Said issued a decree that allows for the appointment of the crown prince. It is the first time in the sultanate's history that a measure has been taken to regulate succession outside the will system.

According to the official Omani News Agency, "The Sultan of the country Haitham bin Tariq issued two decrees introducing a new Basic Law for the state and Council of Oman Law so as to meet the requirements of the sultanate in the next stage."

The decree of the sultanate’s Basic Law includes “setting up a specific and stable mechanism for the transfer of power in the sultanate, and the establishment of a mechanism for the appointment of the crown prince, clarification of his duties and powers, and reaffirmation of the principle of the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary as a basis for rule.”

The will system is derived from the Ibadi school of thought, which is based on a system of jurisprudence that goes back to the historical precedent of the two “sheikhs," the first Caliph Abu Bakr al-Siddiq and the second Caliph Omar bin al-Khattab, who recommended that qualified notables be tasked with appointing a successor to them based on the agreement.

The sultanate follows the Ibadi school of thought, which considers that a will to the next of kin is obligatory before death.

Article 5 of the Basic Law defines the system of government in the sultanate as “a hereditary sultanate system of the male descendants to Sayyid Turki bin Saeed bin Sultan. The one chosen to rule among them is required to be a Muslim of sound mind and the legitimate son of Omani Muslim parents.”

The bold amendment to the Basic Law indicates that Sultan Haitham bin Tariq has received consensus-based agreement from the imams of the sect to establish a mechanism for the transfer of power in order to avoid the type of ambiguity that surrounded the succession of the late Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who did not have children.

The appointment of a crown prince with defined powers also opens the door to reducing the centralisation of power in the sultanate. Such centralisation marked the exercise of authority in Oman throughout the reign of the late Sultan Qaboos.

The royal decree did not indicate the nature of the mechanisms for transfer of the power mandate or the appointment of the crown prince in the country, but referred to them as being specified in an appendix awaiting publication.

Sultan Haitham assumed power about a year ago after the death of Sultan Qaboos, who did not name a heir to the throne, but wrote the name of his preferred heir apparent in a closed envelope that was to be opened after his passing.

Specialists of Omani affairs believe that the decision to choose a crown prince is due to objective circumstances in which it has become difficult for the sultan to perform all duties himself, in addition to Sultan Haitham's desire to expand the circle of participation in decision making, even if gradually.

Salem bin Hamad al-Jhouri, a journalist and researcher in international affairs, explained that the creation of the position of crown prince is no ordinary event, both at home and abroad, and gives more clarity of vision towards a safer transfer of power within the Al Bu Said family, which has governed Oman as  the longest-ruling dynasty in the world.

Speakin to The Arab Weekly, Jhouri considered that this step “aims to reassure people inside and outside Oman about the path followed by the sultanate and makes it possible to know early on who will inherit the  top leadership position in Oman. This will facilitate the smooth transition and avoids all possible surprises.”

He did not rule out that this matter was decided with the participation of the royal family, and that there is coordination among its members in order to approve that the position of crown prince be chosen through a specific mechanism.

Omani political analyst Ahmed al-Shizawi said the absence of the position of crown prince raised many questions in the past among international observers and sparked a level of popular concern over the stability of the process that follows each sultan's passing.

Shizawi told The Arab Weekly that the decree “further develops the articles of the Basic Law of the Sultanate, which was adopted in 1996, but does not provide for the appointment of a crown prince by name. The decree focuses instead on a stable and specific mechanism for transfer of power, the way of appointment of the crown prince and the latter's prerogatives and attributes."

He added that the step is "a tangible development in the inherited political traditions of the ruling family in the sultanate of Oman."

He ruled out any “disagreement about the crown prince within the ruling family" and noted that "the emergence of the two sons of Sultan Haitham at the fore of the media scene in recent months foretells that the eldest son of Sultan Haitham, Sayyid Dhi Yazan, is the most prominent candidate for the position of crown prince. His father appointed him as minister of culture, sports and youth in order to train him and gradually involve him in political activity.

Analysts noted that the new royal decree seeks to emphasise the state’s role in promoting rights, duties and public freedoms, as well as strengthen the oversight of institutions, as it stipulated “the establishment of a committee affiliated with the sultan to follow up on the performance of ministers and deputy ministries and ensure its evaluation.” A special legal text was devoted to the creation of a state financial and administrative control system to promote sound governance.

A separate decree enacted a new law for parliament, the two-chamber Oman Council. The decree specifies "the powers of the council, the conditions for membership and all the rights and duties of the members, in addition to regulating everything related to the affairs of the council."

The council's role will be "to approve or amend laws referred to it by the government, to propose draft laws, and to discuss development plans and the state's general budget."

Shizawi pointed out that the royal decree attached particular importance to the principle of the independence of the judiciary as a basis for rule ensuring "a safety valve and a shield that guarantees justice and preserves rights between the sultans and the Omani people."

He concluded, "The next stage is going to be a difficult one for Sultan Haitham, as the translation of the 2040 vision into deeds would require a comprehensive screening of many of the current laws and regulations. But as long as these reforms and amendments focus on strengthening the partnership of the ruler with the ruled, in the legislative and oversight councils of the Sultanate, justice, stability and satisfaction will always come on top."