Oct. 5, 2020
After 49 years under Sultan Qaboos bin Said, the Sultanate of Oman has a new ruler in Sultan Haitham bin Tariq Al Said. According to Omani succession laws, the royal council could have selected an heir from among them, only consulting an envelope containing the name of the chosen successor, handwritten by the late Sultan Qaboos, if the council failed to agree within three days. Instead, the council chose to defer to the letter, a move that not only shows how cherished Sultan Qaboos is but also gives immediate credibility to his successor.
The Arab world's longest-serving leader, Sultan Qaboos died on January 10, 2020, ending nearly 50 years of rule, during which he reshaped Oman into an oasis of stability and a trustworthy mediator between rival countries.
When Sultan Qaboos assumed power in 1970 as a 29-year-old graduate of the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst, Oman had only three schools, 10km of paved roads, and limited contacts with the outside world. Back then, only two countries, the UK and India, maintained a diplomatic presence in the Sultanate. Sultan Qaboos changed all that. Today, Oman boasts more than 1,600 schools and 20,000km of paved road. His governance was so successful that in 2010, the UN ranked Oman first in the world in advancement up the Human Development Index over the last 40 years, even ahead of China.
Sultan Qaboos also charted an independent foreign policy in a region rampant with political divisions, instability, and sectarianism. He used Oman's geographic location, next to the world's busiest shipping lanes, to become an essential diplomatic player, maintaining ties with a wide range of countries that had issues with each other, such as Saudi Arabia, the Houthi rebels in Yemen, Israel, Palestine, Iran, Israel, the US, and even Syria.
This gave Oman a role similar to Switzerland, where foes could meet for peaceful talks. Notably, in 2011, Sultan Qaboos helped free three American hikers who had been imprisoned in Iran on espionage charges, paying a ransom of USD500,000 per person. Later, he hosted talks between Iran and the US that paved the way for the Iran nuclear deal. Previously, during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, the Sultanate maintained diplomatic relations with both sides and backed UNSC resolutions.
Moreover, under Sultan Qaboos, Oman defied the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar by allowing Qatari-bound flights and ships. The Sultanate was also the only GCC state not to participate in the Saudi-led military invasion against Yemen that began in 2015.
Today, Omanis are proud of a policy that has kept their country out of countless regional conflicts and made it a trusted mediator. And little is likely to change in Oman's foreign policy under Sultan Haitham.
In his first address as Sultan, he vowed to adhere to his predecessor's principles. “We will keep following Sultan Qaboos' foreign policy, which is based on peaceful coexistence, non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries, respect for countries' sovereignty, and international cooperation in various fields." He further added, “we will keep supporting the Arab League to achieve its goals and distance the region from conflicts and differences."
Sultan Haitham's speech did not come as surprise to many. After all, Sultan Qaboos' selection of his cousin Haitham bin Tariq Al Said, an Oxford graduate who spent 16 years in various roles with the foreign ministry, over Haitham's brothers Asad bin Tariq Al Said and Shihab bin Tariq Al Said—both military men—signified his desire to maintain Oman's role as a facilitator of regional and global diplomacy.