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Can Oman’s New Leader Uphold Sultan Qaboos’s Peaceful Legacy?

A Flagging Economy Threatens the Sultanate’s Role as a Trusted Mediator

Sultan Haitham bin Tariq al-Said gives a speech in Muscat, January 2020 Sultan Al Hasani / Reuters

After 49 years under Sultan Qaboos bin Said, Oman has a new ruler. The Arab world’s longest-serving leader died on January 10, ending nearly five decades of transformational rule during which he remade his war-torn nation into an oasis of stability and gained a reputation as a trusted mediator between rival powers. Qaboos had no children and therefore no heir apparent. But shortly after his death, Oman’s Royal Family and Defense Councils expedited the country’s formal succession process, inviting state television to broadcast the opening of a sealed envelope Qaboos had left behind naming his preferred successor: former Minister of Heritage and Culture Haitham bin Tariq al-Said.  

Long floated as a potential successor, Haitham is a cousin of Qaboos. He is described by those who have met him as quiet, steady, and a good listener. The 65-year-old University of Oxford graduate spent more than a decade in the Foreign Ministry and worked on (largely unsuccessful) attempts to diversify Oman’s oil-dependent economy before his appointment as heritage and culture minister in 2002. In his first public remarks as sultan, Haitham pledged to “follow the same line as the late sultan, and the principles that he asserted for the foreign policy of our country, of peaceful coexistence among nations and people, and good neighborly behavior of non-interference in the affairs of others.”

That policy of neighborly non-interference allowed Qaboos to play a vital role mediating between the United States, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other Middle Eastern countries, backchanneling between governments that do not maintain formal diplomatic relations, and even helping to lay the groundwork for the 2015 nuclear accord between Iran, the United States, and five world powers. But whether his successor can continue to serve as a regional pressure valve will partly depend on his ability to relieve pressures that have gradually mounted at home. At a time of soaring tensions between the United States and Iran, the new sultan faces dwindling oil reserves, a bleak fiscal outlook—and a short and

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