LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - Omani Sultan Qaboos is gone, but his legacy of peace lives on. The Gulf’s longest-serving ruler, in power for half a century, finally succumbed to illness late on Friday. That the iconic leader’s reign would soon end was expected. More surprising has been what appears to be a smooth succession.
Qaboos deserves the eulogies bestowed on him on Saturday from less enduring regional leaders in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Israel and Iran. As they feuded and exchanged threats during his rule, the sultan managed to stay on cordial terms with them all, and major western powers to boot. That gave him a platform to reform a country that in 1970 - when he seized power by deposing his own father in a bloodless coup assisted by British spies - had only one primary school, one medical clinic, and no tarmac road connecting its only international airport to the capital Muscat.
Qaboos did it by unifying his own realm, improving its infrastructure and status as a tourist destination, and making his subjects richer. But he hadn’t publicly anointed a successor. The fact his choice was hidden in a letter to be opened if Omani royals couldn’t agree within three days of his death seemed to imply things could get messy.
That doesn’t look to have happened. Instead of deciding for themselves the royal council shrewdly decided to base their decision on what Qaboos wanted, by pre-emptively opening the letter. The upshot is that his 65-year-old cousin Haitham bin Tariq al-Said, one of three brothers seen as succession front-runners, is the new sultan. With Haitham pledging in a Saturday speech to continue Muscat’s policy of peaceful relations, the transition looks encouragingly smooth.
It’s conceivable that this continues in the short term. A week ago, when the United States had just killed top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike, the Middle East was looking at a full-scale war just as Qaboos – whose state has often provided a key backchannel between Washington and Tehran – looked unable to play a mediating role. Yet Tehran’s admission on Saturday that it accidentally shot down a commercial airliner and killed 176 passengers – including scores of Iranians - will make it even more isolated on the global stage. Its appetite for major revenge strikes abroad may, in the short term at least, be distracted by its own people’s anger at home.
Longer term, Haitham’s Oman still has some challenges. Qaboos’s longevity and reputation would have acted as a bulwark against Muscat being bossed around by powerful neighbours like Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, or Saudi’s Mohammed bin Salman. According to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the new sultan is quieter and less assertive than his brother and fellow succession candidate Assad. It may be harder for him to stay on good terms with Iran without succumbing to pressure.
Oman’s finances could be Haitham’s Achilles Heel. Like Gulf peers, state revenue depends heavily on volatile hydrocarbon prices. Unlike most of them Muscat has high debt, a smaller stock of sovereign wealth assets and a reliance on external financing that will cost more to fund so long as regional tensions remain high.
Ideally, the new sultan would find a way to cut a budget deficit that hit 9% in 2018 while stimulating foreign direct investment to make the state’s diversification away from oil begin to pay dividends. Haitham’s experience in Oman’s foreign affairs ministry and as a key part of the country’s Vision 2040 is encouraging. And while Qaboos was hugely respected, the pace of reform towards the end of his reign was slow. Haitham is the choice of Oman’s merchant family oligopoly, according to WINEP, and so may be able to get things moving faster.
The risk is that his commercial ties may equally make him shy away from reform that ruffles feathers. Haitham is in addition associated with the $18 billion Blue City mixed-use development project that collapsed in 2012. To shore up his support, he may also initially want to spend public money rather than cut it, via handouts to his citizens.
In extremis, Haitham’s foreign and domestic risks could combine in Oman being offered a bailout from richer neighbours, as happened before in 2011. If that came with strings attached, he might find it harder to convincingly portray Muscat as a sort of Switzerland in the Gulf – and thus risk undermining Qaboos’ work. It’s a testament to the latter’s legacy that this outcome remains possible, rather than probable.
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