Qaboos to Haitham: Oman’s Uncharacteristically Smooth Transition of Power
The peaceful transition of power following the death of Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said in January 2020 surprised many observers who long believed Oman would face a state of chaos upon the death of the longest-serving Arab monarch. Part of this stemmed from the fact that the Sultan named an automatic successor upon his death. Yet, in a remarkably smooth and swift transition, bin Said’s cousin Haitham bin Tariq Al-Said was inaugurated as the country’s new Sultan within 24 hours of Qaboos’s death. The peaceful power transition was facilitated by two key factors: the Al-Said family announcing the new Sultan based off Qaboos’s recommendation and the stable political environment Qaboos left behind.
A smooth transition of power is rare after the death of long-serving leaders such as bin Said who governed Oman for 50 years. Historically, Oman witnessed fierce power struggles following the death of sultans, including in 1856 the division of the Omani empire among the late Sultan’s two sons. In this most recent transition, the Al-Said ruling family council quickly announced Haitham as the next Sultan based off a recommendation left by Qaboos in a sealed will. This wise decision avoided the need for a family vote, and given the state’s allegiance to bin Said, Haitham’s inauguration was respected. Haitham gained immediate legitimacy and allegiance among key state actors like the Sultan’s Armed Forces (SAF), Royal Oman Police, national intelligence community, and Supreme Court.
The second key factor during the transitions was the tranquil and stable political environment Qaboos left behind. This enabled the new Sultan to enjoy a peaceful transition not overtaken by national disagreements or divisions. Qaboos pursued balanced and neutral policies during his 50-year rule, a rare case in the boiling Middle East region. Since the end of the Dhofar rebellion in 1975, there have been no armed revolutionary movements in Oman. The Arab Spring did hit Oman to a limited extent, yet Oman has not been involved in any regional conflicts other than in a mediation role. The peaceful political climate and internal stability Qaboos built ensured a peaceful transition of power took place after his death.
The smooth transition of power was also supported by Sultan Haitham’s adherence to the policy of his predecessor. Haitham did not purse radical reforms like neighboring Saudi Arabia which has witnessed revolutionary reforms following the rise of King Salman. Sultan Haitham promised in his first speech on January 11 to continue to purse Qaboos’s balanced domestic policy and neutral, peace-making focused foreign policy.
Despite the similarity of the policies of both Sultans, the public expectations of Sultan Haitham will be higher than that of his predecessor when he became Sultan. To meet expectations, the new Sultan will have to live up to his successor who lead the Omani Renaissance, and whose reign witnessed the modernization of the Sultanate in various ways. Therefore, it would be politically wise for Sultan Haitham to do his best to avoid being compared to Qaboos, and instead establish his own public image. This will be a difficult task as the era of Sultan Qaboos will remain immortal in the history of Oman and the memories of Omanis. Thus, Sultan Haitham must show appreciation for the achievements of his predecessor and at the same time portray his era as independent from that of Qaboos’.
The new Sultan of Oman currently faces mammoth domestic challenges including the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak, the remarkable crash in oil prices (source of 75 percent of Oman’s revenues), weak economic growth and high youth unemployment. Oman has also reduced its 2020 financial budget by US$1.3 billion, as well as reducing its development and operating budgets by 20 percent each, to accommodate for the decline in revenues from oil exports. If Sultan Haitham succeeds in this critical period by controlling the spread of the pandemic, overcoming current economic obstacles, and solving youth unemployment, then he will be perceived as an initiator rather than a follower of the late Sultan. He will be able to craft his own image and not risk comparison to his accomplished predecessor. As a result, Omanis will look at the reigns of both Sultans’ independently and acknowledge the achievements of both men in successfully leading their country during different periods.