The recent thaw in relations seems to be a positive step for these former regional adversaries toward deepening ties, but unresolved political conflicts may continue to fester.
Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman appointed on March 2 Sayyid Assad bin Tariq al-Said as deputy prime minister for international cooperation. The appointment triggered immediate speculation among Western observers that Assad is being groomed to become Qaboos’ successor. Prior to his appointment, Assad had never served in the Cabinet, formally known as the Council of Ministers. He had, however, previously served as Qaboos’ special representative since 2002.
With nearly 47 years on the throne, Qaboos, 76, is the Arab world’s longest-serving monarch, but he does not have any children or an heir apparent.
The timing of Assad’s appointment follows the recent visits to Muscat by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on February 15 and Kuwait’s Emir Sabah al-Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah on February 23. Had Assad’s appointment been made prior to the visits, it would have further fueled speculation that he has the inside track to become Qaboos’ heir apparent. The high profile visits could perhaps be intended to signal that Qaboos’ health has improved significantly – or is at least in a stable condition – since his return in April 2016 from Germany, where he had undergone a two-month checkup for what is believed to be colon cancer. In July 2014, Qaboos traveled to Germany for an eight-month medical treatment.
Adding to Oman’s rather mysterious transition process is the fact that the newly filled position of deputy prime minister for international cooperation has been vacant since the passing of Qaboos’ uncle, Sayyid Thuwaini bin Shihab al-Said, in 2010. Oman’s last deputy prime minister was Qais Zawawi, who served as deputy prime minister for economic affairs and was never replaced after he died in an automobile accident in 1995.
Speculation over who will ultimately succeed Qaboos – who has reigned as an absolute monarch since he ousted his father, Sultan Said bin Taimur al-Said, in a bloodless palace coup in 1970 – has persisted for decades. Nevertheless, the present state of Saudi-Iranian acrimony over geopolitical influence has drawn renewed international attention to Oman’s transition and what may come next.
Until Qaboos’ landmark Foreign Affairs interview with U.S. journalist Judith Miller in 1997, little was known about Oman’s transition process. A year prior, Qaboos established Oman’s Basic Law – the sultanate’s constitution – which stipulates that the ruling Al Said family should choose a successor.
“As for a successor, the process, always known to us, has now been publicized in the Basic Law. When I die, my family will meet. If they cannot agree on a candidate, the Defense Council will decide, based on a name or names submitted by the previous sultan. I have already written down two names, in descending order, and put them in sealed envelopes in two different regions,” Qaboos told Miller.
The Basic Law further stipulates that three days of mourning must be observed once the sultan dies. During that time, the National Security Council – presently headed by General Sultan bin Mohammed al-Nuamani of the Royal Office, who is effectively Qaboos’ second in command, assumes responsibility to ensure that law and order are upheld.
Once the official mourning period has come to an end, the Royal Family Council convenes to choose the next sultan. If the Royal Family Council agrees on a successor, the two letters are burned. If they cannot agree, the letters are opened by the National Security Council, formally known as the Defense Council, which then announces a successor based on the sultan’s expressed preference. The letters list a first and second choice; but it is only Qaboos who knows the listed names.
The Royal Family Council is headed by Deputy Prime Minister for the Council of Ministers Sayyid Fahd al-Said, Qaboos’ second cousin, who is also the most senior member of the royal family. Sayyid Fahd is believed to a month older than Qaboos, which for all practical purposes makes him ineligible to become ruler. Sayyid Fahd is also responsible for convening the Cabinet in the absence of Qaboos, who only presides over four Cabinet meetings a year.
Oman’s transition structure is widely understood among Omanis, which could explain why the transition issue has not become a national matter of contention or controversy even if it has become an issue of international curiosity.
The Candidates: Haitham, Assad, and Shihab
The Basic Law also stipulates that the next sultan must be a male descendant of Sayyid Turki bin Said bin Sultan, the sultan of Muscat and Oman from 1871-88, and be over 40 years of age. Among those who qualify are the three sons of Qaboos’ uncle, Prince Tariq bin Taimur al-Said: namely Sayyid Haitham bin Tariq al-Said (born in 1954), Assad Tariq al-Said (also born in 1954), and Shihab bin Tariq al-Said (born in 1955). Qaboos married Tariq’s daughter in 1976, Sayyidah Nawwal bint Tariq al-Said (born 1951), who is Assad’s full sister and Qaboos’ first cousin, along with her brothers. The couple divorced in 1979 and a year later Tariq, who had served as Qaboos’ only prime minister from 1970 onward, died.
The Basic Law further stipulates that the next sultan must be the offspring of two Omani parents, which makes the children of Sayyid Fahd bin Mahmoud al-Said, the deputy prime minister and chair of the council of ministers, ineligible as he is married to a French national.
Complicating the matter of hierarchy within Oman’s royal family is that, up until Assad’s appointment, Haitham (believed to be a month older than his half-brother Assad) had long been considered the frontrunner to succeed Qaboos in view of his long career in government. In fact, in the absence of Deputy Prime Minister Sayyid Fahd, Haitham used to chair meetings of the Cabinet. With Assad’s elevation to deputy prime minister, that presumably will no longer be the case, a change that will be closely watched for evidence of whose star is in the ascendance.
Prior to Haitham’s current position as minister of heritage and culture, he served as undersecretary of the ministry of foreign affairs for political affairs and the secretary general for the ministry of foreign affairs before that, experience that was considered to have provided him with the necessary political gravitas and foreign policy expertise to help steer Oman into a post-Qaboos era.
Assad was born in 1954 and is a graduate of Britain’s Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. Following 20 years of military service, he became a top army commander in the 1990s, and he has served as personal representative of the sultan since 2002. He served as chairman of the board of the University of Nizwa, Oman’s first private university. He runs his own company, Assad Investment Company, which is reported to control assets in the neighborhood of $1 billion.
While Shihab also remains an advisor to Qaboos and was the head of Oman’s Royal Navy until 2004, for now he appears to be a distant third in line for the throne as he is not a member of the Council of Ministers.
In the unlikely event that Haitham, Assad, or Shihab are passed over to become the next sultan, any of their sons (provided both of their parents are Omani) could be selected.
Oman’s Foreign Policy in Context
Under Qaboos, Oman has focused on maintaining friendly relations with its immediate neighbors, including Saudi Arabia and Iran, while avoiding interfering in the internal affairs of any state. This strategy has not only protected Oman from regional turmoil but also allowed it to focus on its own economic development. Over the past 40 years, the country has grown from an impoverished state into a modern economy. Omani authorities view protecting the country’s $80 billion economy and sustaining its hard-won growth as fundamental to political stability.
Protecting these gains coupled with Qaboos’ personal commitment to peaceful reconciliation between the region’s many warring parties, including in neighboring Yemen, serve as key pillars to Oman’s peaceful and neutral foreign policy approach.
Qaboos’ foreign policy legacy ranges from having hosted then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in Salalah in 1994 – as part of an effort to demonstrate Arab support for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process – to providing active diplomatic support for the secret backchannel between the Obama administration and Iran, which led to the interim nuclear agreement of 2013, serving as the basis for the historic Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action over Tehran’s controversial nuclear program in July 2015.
Assad or Haitham Represent Continuity
During his tenure, Qaboos has cemented Oman’s position as an indispensable Western ally. This leaves Iran with little, if any, realistic prospects of coercing a new sultan to move closer to its orbit, even if it tried. As Rouhani’s recent visit to Muscat indicates, Tehran arguably stands to benefit more from protecting the status quo and ensuring that Oman remains a neutral party. The next sultan may therefore choose to build on Qaboos’ legacy as a regional intermediary.
That Oman also prioritizes a close relationship with Saudi Arabia was evident when it chose in December 2016 to join the Saudi-led coalition of Muslim countries dedicated to fighting terrorism. Oman’s decision to join the coalition at its first anniversary was not only symbolic in nature, but also signaled to Riyadh that it would not push back against the Saudi initiative at a time of unprecedented regional turmoil.
Oman is the only Gulf Cooperation Council member to have opted out of Saudi Arabia’s ongoing military campaign against Yemen’s Houthi rebels for fear that the war could spill over its southern border, either by means of terrorist attack, especially by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or via a massive influx of refugees fleeing the war. Oman, however, considers stability in Yemen a core national interest and has, since the outbreak of Saudi Arabia’s war against the Houthis, actively pushed for the resumption of the U.N. sponsored peace process for Yemen.
While Omanis generally credit Qaboos for having presided over an era of peace and prosperity, his neutrality-based foreign policy doctrine seems equally popular as it plays an integral part of what has in the post-Arab Spring environment been referred to as “Omani exceptionalism,” namely that Muscat does not have to adhere to transnational trends pertaining to sectarianism or the seemingly endless Saudi-Iranian rivalry.
Within this context, Assad’s appointment as deputy prime minister for international cooperation suggests that continuity of Oman’s neutrality-based foreign policy doctrine remains a top priority as he is expected to carry out Qaboos’ directives for the foreseeable future. Whether he does so effectively could also determine whether he will ultimately be chosen as Oman’s next sultan.
Meanwhile, Oman watchers and regional observers are likely monitoring whether Assad will represent the sultan at GCC summits or meet with visiting leaders. Whether Assad’s appointment leads to increased international visibility or not, regional observers will inevitably search for clues whether he is indeed being groomed to eventually succeed Qaboos.
For now, Oman’s complicated transition process remains as opaque as ever.
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