Sultan Haitham a ‘renaissance figure’ with challenges ahead

Finding money to cover the debts remains key. Oman already has a $3.6 billion payment due in 2022 to a syndicate of Chinese banks, according to ratings agency Fitch.
Wednesday 30/09/2020
A file picture of Sultan Haitham bin Tariq al-Said being sworn in before the royal family council in Muscat, Oman January 11. (Reuters)
A file picture of Sultan Haitham bin Tariq al-Said being sworn in before the royal family council in Muscat, Oman January 11. (Reuters)

DUBAI – When Oman’s ruler of a half century died without an heir apparent, brief fears of turmoil ended with the quick announcement of a new sultan in this nation on the eastern edge of the Arabian Peninsula.

But instead of the military rulers whose arrivals come with martial music and whose ends often accompany times of trouble in the Mideast, Oman ended up with the culture minister.

That Oman followed its own distinctive, uncommon path after the death of Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said represents perhaps the best testament to his rule over a nation he brought out of isolationist obscurity and modernised with its oil wealth.

A traditional boat is moored next to a modern ship in the port of Mutrah in the Omani capital Muscat. (AFP)
A traditional boat is moored next to a modern ship in the port of Mutrah in the Omani capital Muscat. (AFP)

His successor, Sultan Haitham bin Tariq al-Said, has followed his example in establishing his rule over this country of 2.7 million Omanis and another 1.7 million foreigners as the coronavirus pandemic closed off the sultanate.

Oman faces billions in looming loan repayments, including from China, and needs even more money as its youthful population wants jobs and its government cannot afford the cradle-to-grave benefits given in other Gulf Arab nations.

“Sultan Haitham has a golden chance to become Oman’s second renaissance figure,” said Bader al-Saif, an assistant professor of history at Kuwait University who studies Oman.

“The domestic economic scene is his to win or his to lose.”

Already, Sultan Haitham has followed the example of his late cousin. He plans to meet with subjects across his nation of 11 governorates.

The first visit came in Dhofar, a region bordering Yemen that was still gripped by a guerrilla war with Marxist fighters when Sultan Qaboos took power in 1970. Sultan Qaboos won the war and ultimately invited Dhofari rebels into his government, noticeably the longtime Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Yusuf bin Alawi.

Sultan Haitham’s efforts also extended into a quiet government campaign encouraging several dissidents to return to the kingdom, so long as they give up their social media presence and end their activism, said writer Nabhan al-Hanashi, who leads the Omani Centre for Human Rights from exile in the United Kingdom.

Omani national flag waving in the wind in the capital Muscat. (AFP)
Omani national flag waving in the wind in the capital Muscat. (AFP)

Also invited home was Jamshid bin Abdullah Al Said, the last sultan of Zanzibar, the Tanzanian island once part of Oman. Sultan Qaboos’s father and the late sultan himself kept Al Said in exile in the UK, fearful of any threat to their rule, no matter how minor.

As ruler, Sultan Haitham has deviated from his predecessor by naming finance and foreign ministers, as opposed to wielding the titles himself.

The sultanate’s finances remain a concern, however. Ratings agencies warn that the Omani government is on pace to run over a $10 billion fiscal deficit in 2020 alone.

That’s as global energy prices remain low, cutting into revenues for a nation that produces just under 1 million barrels of oil a day. Traders have put Omani bonds into “junk” status — meaning a higher risk for default.

Finding money to cover the debts remains key. Oman already has a $3.6 billion payment due in 2022 to a syndicate of Chinese banks, according to ratings agency Fitch.

Seeking more money there, from the West or fellow nations in the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) could make Oman more beholden to them, something Sultan Haitham wants to avoid, said Cinzia Bianco, a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“This makes it even more important for Sultan Haitham to try and keep Omanis close to one another and close to him because there is this other vulnerability,” Bianco said.

Then there’s Iran. The start of 2020 nearly saw the US and Iran enter a war. Under Sultan Qaboos, Oman had provided a secret backchannel to Tehran during negotiations that led to the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

Just before he died, Sultan Qaboos also signed deals allowing the US and British navies access to the Omani port of Duqm, expanding the longtime access both nations enjoy there. India as well has access for its navy.

Omani men pass in front of Canadian cafe and bake shop Tim Hortons in City Center Mall in Muscat, Oman, February 11, 2019. (Reuters)
Omani men pass in front of Canadian cafe and bake shop Tim Hortons in City Center Mall in Muscat, Oman, February 11, 2019. (Reuters)

While Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal lit the fuse of current tensions, Oman once again could be an interlocutor — or may already be serving as one now.

“As Yusuf bin Alawi once told me, the Gulf needs an open window to Iran and if no one else is going to do it, Oman is going to do it,” said Marc J. Sievers, a former US ambassador to Oman.

“It wasn’t just for the West, but also for the Gulf itself that the Omanis wanted to maintain that engagement. I think that’ll continue.”