OPN 200117 Haitham-1579262689490
Oman's new Sultan Haitham Bin Tariq Al Said near the Royal Family Council in Muscat, Oman Image Credit: AP

After the passing of Sultan Qaboos Bin Said on January 10, Oman’s succession proceeded instantly, and smoothly. In honour of the late Sultan, the family did not even attempt to come to a consensus on the successor, and instead unsealed the famous envelope left behind by Qaboos — which bore the name of his cousin, Haitham Bin Tariq Al Said. Haitham was duly enthroned as Oman’s new Sultan. This swift transition is a potent show of unity that is very important in a region as sensitive as the Middle East.

The fact that Haitham was chosen by Qaboos himself lends the new ruler immense credibility. Oman has been an oasis of stability under the popular Qaboos for five decades, and Omanis will be relieved that he was the one to choose Haitham. But Sultan Haitham will be alive to the reality that just as his selection by Qaboos bestows political legitimacy, it also means he will have to fill the large boots of the late Sultan.

His performance as ruler of this strategically important Arab nation will always be compared to that of Qaboos, a consummate diplomat who emerged as the region’s foremost peacemaker. Qaboos transformed the Arabian Peninsula nation from an isolated country into a modern state with a thriving tourism industry, thanks to the country’s crystal waters and scenic mountain ranges. But it was the sultan’s policy of neutrality and non-interference that elevated Oman’s standing as a “Switzerland of the Middle East” and made him an important go-between.

Al Said family

The Al Said family has ruled Oman since the eighteenth century, and once ruled over Zanzibar too, off the coast of Tanzania. The sultanate is located on the Strait of Hormuz — the narrow seaway through which much of the world’s oil supply passes — and maintains good relations with all regional states, including Iran.

In 2019, Oman said it signed an agreement with the United States that would allow American ships and warplanes to take advantage of its ports and airports.

Foreign policy

World leaders were quick to pay visits to Oman to pass on their condolences on Qaboos’ death, and their best wishes to Haitham. They will be keen to see the new ruler uphold the balanced foreign policy the Sultanate is famous for.

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Image Credit: Seyyed de la Llata/ © Gulf News

Haitham, 65, has had a long career in public life, working in the foreign ministry, assisting with programmes aimed at diversifying the country’s economy away from oil, and most recently serving as culture minister. He owns private business entities in Oman with his brother Talal.

His father, Tariq Bin Taimur, was briefly prime minister in the early 1970s after Qaboos brought him back from exile upon assuming power in a bloodless coup. Haitham’s background in heritage should hold him in good stead as he seeks to continue the legacy of Qaboos, whose inclinations towards music and culture were legendary.

He comes to power at a time when the region is facing massive turmoil, and as his country faces a challenging economic climate at home. A critical issue will be addressing youth expectations of the economy. In an address on Omani state television, Haitham vowed to continue his predecessor’s practice of not interfering in the affairs of other countries while working for peace between them.

“We will continue to assist in resolving disputes peacefully,” he said.

Vision 2040

As culture minister, he was the driving force behind the restoration of many historical monuments in Oman.

Since December 2013, he served as head of the committee for Oman’s “Vision 2040”, a road map for social and economic reform, designed to address problems like high unemployment rates and corruption. Oman hopes that Vision 2040 becomes the guiding document for the development of national implementation programmes, with aims to boost tourism, modernise agriculture and foster technology.

The economic agenda of Vision 2040 includes creating wealth through economic diversification and private sector partnership; ensuring balanced governorates development; preserving environment sustainability; and building world-class infrastructure and liveable cities.

Also part of the programme are enhancing effectiveness of governance and the rule of law, improving the efficiency of government agencies, increasing coordination among them, and enhance citizens’ confidence by creating an institutional framework.

It is in the domestic realm where the ultimate success of Haitham’s leadership will be determined. He has built a strong network inside the country through his years of public service, including most recently as minister of heritage and culture.

More on the transition in Oman