Can Oman’s New Ruler Maintain Legacy as Middle East’s Peacemaker?
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The Arab world’s longest-serving ruler recently died, and many wonder whether his successor will follow in his conflict-resolving path.
Qaboos bin Said al-Said, the Arab world’s longest-serving ruler until his death earlier this month, helped transform Oman’s economy over five decades while playing a key mediatory role in many of the Middle East’s thorniest disputes.
The task for his successor, Haitham bin Tariq al-Said, will be to preserve that legacy just as regional tensions are inflamed by the threat of a U.S.-Iran conflict and Oman’s oil-reliant economy is imperiled by ballooning debt and high unemployment.
“The new sultan faces challenges on all fronts,” says Jane Kinninmont, a Middle East analyst. “The social contract needs to be rewritten for the transition to a post-oil world and Oman faces a region entangled in conflict in which its traditional ally — the U.S. — has become one of the more unpredictable players.”
Kinninmont adds: “But the timing is not so bad for a new figure to emerge with the promise of continuing Oman’s tradition of dialogue and diplomacy.”
Many Omanis in private have been saying the late sultan had become more of a problem than a solution.
Marc Valeri, University of Exeter
Sultan Haitham, 65, inherits a peacemaking role that his cousin Qaboos personified during a 50-year reign. Qaboos, who overthrew his father in a bloodless coup in 1970, sought to maintain relations with Oman’s fellow Gulf states, Western powers and Iran, while going further than his neighbors in starting dialogue with Israel. He worked for many years to facilitate peace between Israel and Palestine and nurtured talks that led to the 2014 Iran nuclear deal.
Yet this neutrality created its own tensions, such as when Oman faced marginalization for defying calls by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to join an embargo of Qatar over Doha’s alleged backing of extremism.
Renewed hostilities between Washington and Tehran following the assassination of the Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani in a U.S. air strike present Sultan Haitham with an immediate challenge.
As Saudi Arabia and the UAE have backed U.S. President Donald Trump in his attempts to isolate and weaken Iran through stringent economic sanctions, Muscat was accused of being too close to Tehran.
Yet even before Soleimani’s killing, the Saudi-Emirati axis has for months been urging de-escalation, wary of a regional conflagration. Behind the scenes, both are seeking to calm Washington-Tehran tensions.
Ban Ki-moon, the former United Nations secretary-general, says: “I would like to see Qaboos’ legacy inspire others to think differently about what leadership means in a region where both local and international players too often mistake militarism and violence for strength.”
Sultan Haitham, a veteran minister with extensive business interests, was in 2013 mandated with reshaping Oman’s economy through a national strategy for long-term development. Omanis hope that as ruler he can bring a sense of purpose to the implementation of the Oman Vision 2040 strategy that seeks to turn around the fortunes of the poorest of the Gulf states.
The 2014 collapse in oil prices led to a drop in Oman’s government revenues and a rise in the budget deficit. The government responded with additional borrowing to cover the shortfall, prompting the International Monetary Fund to urge deeper austerity and reform to balance the books. Rating agencies downgraded Oman’s credit rating to junk.
“Oman can keep on borrowing, but as soon as international markets say no it all goes wrong fast,” says one analyst. Oman, reluctant to rely on neighborly bailouts, may yet have to call for external financial assistance.
A lack of jobs, particularly for young Omanis, has created widespread frustration. Sultan Haitham has urged young people to look to the private sector rather than waiting for government jobs. But opportunities are limited in a country where youth unemployment was nearly 49 percent in 2018, according to the International Labor Organization.
Sultan Haitham will also be expected to bring renewed energy to the process of diversifying the economy away from oil, which makes up about three quarters of government revenues. “Many Omanis in private have been saying the late sultan had become more of a problem than a solution given his isolation and a lack of decision-making,” says Marc Valeri, an associate professor of the political economy of the Middle East at the University of Exeter.
Yet Sultan Haitham is also associated with the ill-fated Blue City project, Oman’s biggest real estate development that ran aground amid legal battles. His involvement has “to an extent, tarnished Haitham’s reputation,” according to a 2009 U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks.
Another challenge for Sultan Haitham will be sustaining Qaboos’ success in healing Oman’s long-standing geographical and sectarian differences.
The northern port of Sohar was the epicenter of the Arab Spring–inspired unrest that swept Oman in 2011 as thousands took to the streets to protest against living standards and unemployment. The killing of two protesters shocked the country, prompting Qaboos to sack ministers and create new public sector jobs. To blunt further dissent, Qaboos also launched an infrastructure spending spree that has gifted a troublesome public finance legacy to his successor.
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