Haitham bin Tariq Al Said has been sworn in as the new ruler of Oman, succeeding his cousin Sultan Qaboos who has died at age 79 after almost half a century at the country’s helm.
Haitham was picked ahead of his brother, Asaad, who was also seen as a potential heir after he was named deputy prime minister in 2017.
The family decided to honor the wishes of Qaboos, who had no known brothers or children, by choosing the successor he designated in a letter, signaling continuity. It had the right to choose a new sultan within three days of Qaboos’ death on Friday.
Haitham takes over at a time of heightened tension in the region as Iran, a foe of leading Gulf powers, and the U.S. face off in a confrontation that this month has threatened to spark another Middle East war.
Oman has often served as a mediator in the region. It sponsored cease-fire talks during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, and hosted secret discussions between the U.S. and Iran that paved the way for the landmark nuclear deal in 2015. The Gulf nation didn’t participate in the Saudi-led boycott of Qatar in 2017.
In his first address to the nation, Haitham, 65, said he would “follow the path of Sultan Qaboos and build upon it.”
The new leader has held governmental positions over the last three decades, including minister of culture and heritage, general secretary of foreign affairs and head of the Anglo-Omani society. He was also head of the Oman Vision 2040 committee, the country’s economic and social development strategy.
“Oman survived the first test, pulling off a well-choreographed transition that transfers the authority and legacy of Sultan Qaboos to his successor,” said Kristin Smith Diwan, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, who researches generational change in the region.
“But the challenges for the new sultan are clear: navigating the regional contest for power and addressing the pressing demands for economic reform,” she said.
While Qaboos defended Oman’s sovereignty by balancing regional powers, she said, securing Oman’s independence demands a more secure financial footing.
That requires tough economic decisions “that will impact the Omani population directly, and those are tough choices for a new leader to make,” according to Diwan.
Marc Valeri, an Oman expert at the U.K.’s Exeter University, agreed the economy would top the list of challenges.
Moves to diversify “sources of revenue of the state have been extremely slow, to say the least, and Oman faces dramatic social inequalities and endemic unemployment,” he said by email.
The new sultan may change the government’s economic approach as he’s more inclined toward privatisation, according to a person who worked with Haitham who asked not to be named.
The largest Arab crude producer outside the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, Oman’s finances have been battered by a slump in oil prices. The country plans to borrow OMR2bn ($5.2bn) to bridge the bulk of its 2020 budget deficit, which is expected to reach OMR2.5bn this year.
Oman’s economy is expected to expand by 1.5 per cent in 2019 and 2.8 per cent in 2020, according to a Bloomberg survey of economists.
Sultan Qaboos transformed a country with barely any paved roads into an independent nation of 4 million people with a $79bn economy. He gave women the vote in the early 1990s and enabled them to stand for public office, unprecedented moves for the Gulf, while retaining total control over major political decisions.
Haitham’s biggest obstacle is that “he won’t be Qaboos,” Gary Grappo, a former U.S. ambassador to Oman, said before the sultan’s death.
“With the possible exception of Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, it’s hard to imagine another leader who’s had greater impact on his nation than Qaboos had in Oman. It’s inestimable.”