191201 oman leader
Oman's Sultan Haitham Bin Tariq. The swift accession of a new ruler put to rest speculation that the sultan’s death might trigger a power struggle. Image Credit: AFP

Beirut: Sultan Qaboos Bin Said of Oman was buried on Saturday and a new ruler was named to succeed him, signalling continuity in the small Gulf Arab country that commands an outsized influence for its location along some of the world’s most vital trade routes and its role as a regional mediator.

The successor, Haitham Bin Tariq Al Said, will nonetheless confront challenges as he follows in the footsteps of Qaboos, who had ruled Oman single-handedly for the past 50 years and was regarded as the founding father of the modern Omani nation.

In keeping with Islamic tradition, the funeral was held within hours of the death of the former sultan, the Middle East’s longest-serving Arab ruler, who died late Friday at the age of 79.

The simple, solemn ceremony at the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Oman’s capital, Muscat, eschewed any kind of lavish state funeral – which could have drawn leaders from around the world and given Oman a chance to showcase its international prestige.

Haitham, 65, was quickly named as successor after authorities opened a sealed letter from Qaboos identifying whom he wished to take his place. Qaboos had no direct heirs and had refrained from making his choice of successor public. Haitham is Qaboos’ cousin.

The swift accession of a new ruler put to rest speculation that the sultan’s death might trigger a destabilising power struggle within the royal family in the strategically located country.

Oman commands access to the mouth of the Gulf, the world’s most vital oil route, and is growing in importance as a transshipment route between China and the expanding markets of Africa.

After swearing the oath of office, Haitham pledged to continue the policies of his predecessor, who was widely respected among many Omanis for having brought stability to a once deeply fractured country during his five-decade rule and for bringing modernity to the conservative tribal society.

“We will remain guided by the late sultan’s wisdom going forward. We will preserve and embark on the achievements he made,” Haitham said in a televised address.

He also said he would uphold Oman’s role as a peacemaker and mediator in regional and international disputes. “We will continue to assist in resolving disputes peacefully,” he said.

The smooth transition will help Haitham win legitimacy among many Omanis, said Bader Al Saif, an assistant professor of history at Kuwait University, on Twitter. “It provides the heir an unparalleled air of legitimacy and the people a sense of comfort that they are under the hands of Qaboos’s choice.”

But although Qaboos’ death did not come as a surprise - he had increasingly slipped out of sight over the past two years as rumors swirled that he had cancer - Haitham will have obstacles to overcome if he is to assert his leadership after the momentous rule of his predecessor, analysts said.

“It will be hard for him to fill Qaboos’s shoes, because they were huge. He is going to have to find a way to win hearts and minds,” said Cianza Bianco of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

A majority of Omanis have known no other ruler than Qaboos, and some took to Twitter to express grief.

“Goodbye Baba Qaboos, we will miss you so much” wrote Amna Al Baloushi, posting a photo of herself among the Omanis who gathered along the route taken by the convoy carrying Qaboos’ coffin to the mosque. “Our hearts are broken.”

The sharp escalation of tensions between the United States and Iran has meanwhile raised fears of a wider conflict that could embroil Oman, dent its already-fragile economy and test the sultanate’s reputation for steering a path between regional rivals.

Oman is perhaps best known internationally for the role it played in secret negotiations leading up to the signature of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, serving as the initial conduit for communications between the Obama administration and Tehran. It has also sought to mediate in other regional disputes. But as Qaboos’s health deteriorated during last week’s confrontations between Iran and the United States, the Omani authorities issued a terse statement saying they would not be acting as an intermediary in this dispute.

Haitham’s credentials do not seem in doubt, however. Oxford-educated, he is a former minister of culture who has spent years working a senior adviser to Qaboos in the foreign ministry, said Bianca, who met Haitham in 2015. She described him as “quiet and reflective”.

“He listens a lot,” she said. “He doesn’t talk much.”