On the morning of January 11, 2020, the citizens of Oman awoke to the news that Sultan Qaboos Bin Said, the monarch of the small Gulf nation, had passed away the previous day after a 49-year rule.
The late Sultan Qaboos came to power in 1970, after he overthrew his conservative father in a palace coup with the help of the British. He then set about modernising his impoverished country, using Oman’s newfound oil wealth to fund its infrastructure. When he took over the throne, Oman had only three schools and harsh laws banning electricity, radios, eyeglasses and even umbrellas. By the time he left, Oman developed a good education system, a robust economy, and has become a tourist destination.
Apart from bringing about this ‘renaissance,’ Qaboos also gained worldwide fame for championing neutrality and constructive diplomacy. Despite being located in the Strait of Hormuz in the turbulent Middle East, he maintained relations with countries ranging from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran, Israel, and Palestine, and also with the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Perhaps the greatest result of this long-standing policy was enabling backchannel talks between the US and Iran which led to an international nuclear deal.
Sultan Qaboos also introduced democratic institutions in Oman, issuing the country’s first constitution, granting universal suffrage to all citizens above 21, and allowing the country’s first municipal elections in December 2012. However, he also suppressed dissent to the extent of shutting down news outlets and arresting protestors, journalists and activists, sometimes for opinions expressed on social media.
Oman experienced ripple effects of the Arab Spring in the form of months of protests against corruption and unemployment; and eventually Sultan Qaboos relented by giving more legislative powers to the Council of Oman and promising to increase wages and create jobs. While this satisfied the protestors, it did not mean life under ‘Baba Qaboos’ was all roses and no thorns for everyone. As detailed in this 2020 Periodic Review by Human Rights Watch, Sultan Qaboos revised Oman’s penal code in January 2018, which included “increasing punishments for offenses that relate to the peaceful exercise of freedom of expression.
The last few years of Qaboos’ rule saw economic stagnation and a crash in global oil prices which resulted in high youth unemployment rates in a country where a significant portion of the population is under the age of 25. The large budget deficits and high debt have prompted the rating agencies such as Moody’s to downgrade Oman’s credit rating to ‘junk’ status. In an attempt to reduce the dependence on oil, Sultan Qaboos launched ‘Vision 2020’ to encourage innovation in other areas. This initiative failed to meet the objective and got renamed as ‘Vision 2040.’
This was the scene laid out for the new Sultan Haitham Bin Tarik, who was designated the new ruler of Oman as per a secret envelope containing late Sultan Qaboos’ choices for his successor.
Haitham bin Tarik was the Minister of Heritage and Culture before his accession to the throne, and also happens to have been the Chairman of the ‘Vision 2040’ committee, among other posts. In his first royal speech, he vowed to continue in the footsteps of his predecessor, especially in regards to the state’s foreign policy. In another royal speech in February, he charted a ‘future roadmap’ for Oman and claimed that he will prioritize education and youth employment. He has been active in these past six months, having issued 70 Royal Decrees concerning appointments, amendments, and new laws, among others.
Sultan Haitham is already being put to the test as Oman battles the COVID-19 along with the rest of the world. Omanis are looking at a new vision with renewed hope, one of the new sultan who brings with him great promises and perhaps a renaissance of its own kind. Will Oman be able to maintain its tradition of neutrality? Will the fight for a progressive and inclusive Oman find its voice? Will Oman be able to save itself from the consequences of a glut in crude oil economy? The citizens of Oman hope and wish that their new sultan will get the right answer and steer the country towards a more secure and prosperous future.