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Oman’s Imminent Succession Crisis: A Look into its Role in the Region

The name of the next Sultan is written on a piece of paper in the royal palace in Muscat. There is a second envelope in the royal palace Salalah, to ensure both sides of the country have the succession plan. However, these envelopes may not even be used as Sultan Qaboos has created a council of his relatives to meet and decide on the next Sultan after his death.[1] Sultan Qaboos has no heirs and has not publicly stated his succession plan leading to the secrecy described above. This uncertainty has worried many on the future of Oman’s diplomatic role in the region especially as whoever the next Sultan is, will have a behemoth legacy to follow.

Sultan Qaboos has been instrumental in creating policies of modernization in Oman. He abandoned Oman’s isolationist tendencies and embraced the international community, capitalized on its oil resources to ensure the development and enhancement of infrastructural and social services projects, and emphasized a culture of mutual respect and understanding. These aspects are cornerstones of Sultan Qaboos’s reign and have shown that a theocratic and authoritative state is able to prioritize peace along with economic growth. His domestic and foreign policies focuses on the monumental idea of balance.[2] Oman is geographically in between Iran and Saudi Arabia and yet maintains positive relationships with both countries. Each country is persistent in their efforts to sway Oman to into their folds, however, Oman quietly and carefully chooses which treaties to sign onto, which organizations to join, and which meetings to attend. [3] Although Oman may wish to be more assertive, this perpetual balancing act serves an important purpose in maintaining its and the region’s teetering stability.[4] The geographic boundaries that Oman shares with these two powerhouses provide Oman enough justification to continue being a regional peacemaker with its reticent and scrupulous foreign policy.[5]

This foreign policy has been crafted directly by Sultan Qaboos since he first took office in 1970. Qaboos directly implemented changes to his country aligning with the moderate teachings of Ibadism, the school of Islam that is primarily based in Oman.[6] Oman’s history is parallel with that of Ibadism, as Sultan Qaboos is the only Ibadi leader in the world.[7] Oman continues to thrive as it is, “internally stable, economically prosperous, and established as a nation integral to foreign relations in the Middle East and the world. Qaboos’s pragmatic, independent approach in bringing Oman to this point owes much to the Ibadi interpretation of Islam practiced there”.[8] This significant and unique religious aspect of the country accounts for Oman’s flexibility in its foreign policy decisions, allowing for its regional preeminence as an unbiased third party to remain intact.[9]

Oman consistently recognizes its valuable ability as a mediator throughout the region. This international acknowledgement has paralleled with their domestic policy. The Omani government champions the idea that, “religious tolerance is key to establishing peace—inside and outside of their borders. State officials have expressed that through Ibadi Islam and the integration of this sect into the government and culture of this state, tolerance on a national, regional, and global scale has been achieved.[10] This quote is the prime example of the widespread tolerance seen throughout the country, which is a major priority for Sultan Qaboos.[11]

Sultan Qaboos’s preponderance of power has allowed him the rare opportunity for crafting Oman’s place in the world through implementing, “the so-called ‘Omani renaissance’ by undertaking social, educational and cultural reforms that continues to this day.”[12] These are most highlighted by the creation of Oman’s Public Authority for Consumer Protection (PACP), a government-run service, which takes complaints of citizens and works on ameliorating financial woes throughout the sultanate.[13] This agency was created at the same time of the rampant Arab Spring protests throughout the region. Oman was not a stranger to countrywide unrest during this time and the PACP is one of many initiatives implemented to assuage the domestic concerns of Omani citizens.[14] One of the most significant responses to the protests ushered in with the Arab Spring was how Sultan Qaboos reacted. He was calm, attentive, and engaged directly with the protestors with the appropriate members of his cabinet to discuss the demands. These contacts were immensely significant in facilitating understanding as many of the protestor’s demands could be met. The social contract in Oman was further highlighted, as the protestors did not call for the abdication of Sultan Qaboos.[15] This shows the extreme admiration Omanis have for their ruler due to the widespread changes already implemented in Oman’s modernization.

Unlike many of its neighbors, Oman has created services, reforms, and changes in order to attend to the needs of its citizens when they protest. This is a significant insight to Sultan Qaboos’s leadership style.[16] He is extremely cognizant of how fragile the situation is in the regional and domestic spheres, and has tirelessly maintained a balance of appeasement and strategy. He calls for tolerance, moderation, respect, and support, partially through the lens of Ibadism but largely through the lens of citizenship, in his many speeches and as is further evidenced in the policies that he supports.[17] Many Omanis credit his royal vision for the achievements and progress throughout Omani society and take July 23 as a day of celebration (that day in 1970 is when Sultan Qaboos carried out the successful coup d’état against his father)

The forty-eight and counting years of progress, however, may very soon come to a halt. Sultan Qaboos’s health is deteriorating rapidly and he has no children.[18] This is a huge shock to the hereditary nature of the Al Bu Said dynasty. The 77-year old leader took over the Sultanate from his father, and while modernizing all aspects of Oman he has thus far neglected to name an heir to the throne.[19] The power transition is likely to be difficult seeing as none of Sultan Qaboos’s cousins or nephews (the most likely candidates for the next Sultan) have garnered the same level of respect or admiration domestically and regionally.[20]

Even as his health worsens, Qaboos is incredibly tight-lipped about the succession plans. He has created an, “intricate maze of secrecy around the succession process, which includes a family council election and Academy Awards-style sealed envelopes, was designed, analysts and observers say, to ensure that Qaboos passed along stability as part of his legacy.”[21] This secrecy may backfire however, as rivalries within the Al Bu Said family may turn against the designated heir, or tip the carefully constructed domestic balancing in favor of one tribe or religious group.

Although there is no obvious successor, rumors speculate who the next Sultan may be. The only fact that may be known with any certainty is that the next Sultan will be apart of the Al Bu Said family. With knowing that singular fact, three potential names come into the discourse and attempting to know the next Sultan of Oman. Firstly, Asad bin Tariq, Sultan Qaboos’s cousin, was recently appointed as deputy prime minister for international relations and cooperation affairs. He was the commander of the Omani army and the Sultan’s special representative. These three roles may make Asad bin Tariq well rounded enough to be on the envelope.[22]

Asad’s brother Haitham is largely discussed as the second most-likely choice for Sultan. He is the current minister for culture and heritage and was previously the secretary general for foreign affairs. His years of domestic and foreign policy seem to place him in high chances for the position. The third name is also the brother of Haitham and Asad. Shihab bin Tariq is a close advisor to the Sultan and previously headed Oman’s navy.[23]

However, all of these men are in their 60s and as Sultan Qaboos is nearing a 50-year reign, he might want to choose a successor with more ability to continue to craft Oman’s unique and significant foreign policy. He has watched the region around succumb to continual problems with leadership change, and he might want to ensure a bit more longevity with his successor.

The future of Oman is slightly uncertain because of the secrecy surrounding the succession process. Further, Qaboos did not dilute his role as Sultan, thus he is head of state, prime minister, defense minister, finance minister, foreign affairs minister, and chairman of the central bank.[24] This supreme control of power will give the next Sultan the opportunity to continue Oman’s cherished and necessary role as the geopolitical equilibrium in the region. “A power vacuum in Oman will create a fertile ground for regional polarization that is likely to exacerbate the presently charged political climate and increase tensions between emerging regional rivalries, finally leading to a more dismantled Arab Gulf.[25]

Domestically, Sultan Qaboos has been instrumental in ensuring equal access to opportunities for every Omani tribe, religious group, and citizen. The political infrastructure of Oman revolves around community cohesion – the tribal sheikhs, the security establishment, and the business community.[26] The new Sultan’s legitimacy is undoubtedly less that Sultan Qaboos’s and there is a worry that, “the successor may fail to garner enough support from power centers in the nation’s political establishment, security apparatus, commercial elite, or the population at large.”[27] This is a concern for the domestic role the next Sultan will play.

Regionally, the next Sultan may not be able to garner the same level of authority throughout the Middle East. However, some concerns about Oman’s upcoming succession may be assuaged given its unique foreign policy and diplomatic role in the region. The next Sultan has the advantage of, “witnessing the success of Sultan Qaboos’ stress on unity and independence as a means of achieving national security. Disregarding history’s lessons and departing from a highly-respected foreign policy approach would be an unwise path for the incoming Sultan to take”[28] The next Sultan will be successful if he focuses on continuing the successes cultivated by Sultan Qaboos. It cannot be overstated that Oman’s next Sultan must focus on maintaining the carefully crafted relationships domestically and regionally.[29]

Oman’s regional role is of the utmost importance for the future stability of the region, and the new Sultan will need to garner enough legitimacy both internally and externally in order to maintain the status quo. Oman is currently undergoing simultaneous peace talks for the current situations raging in Syria, Yemen, Qatar, and Libya. Yemen in particular has Oman’s interest as it shares a significant border that may see violence spill into Oman. Although Oman’s border security is incredibly tight, the ever-shifting situation in Yemen scares Omanis.[30] Oman is frequently labeled the “Switzerland of the Middle East” as a nod to their neutrality and peaceful nature, and in order to retain that title the next Sultan must work diligently to prioritize the coexistence, diversity and tolerance that makes Oman continue to thrive.[31]

Sultan Qaboos has left Oman and the world purposefully in the dark about his succession plans as a tactic to preserve stability. Only time will tell who the next Sultan is and if this high level of secrecy will maintain the precarious balance of power that Oman oversees throughout the Middle East. The two envelopes sitting in two separate royal palaces is an indication that Sultan Qaboos very well knows who he wants to succeed him, garnering his choice with some immense legitimacy, especially as the next Sultan will have to overcome this hurdle both domestically and regionally. The next Sultan will have the utmost challenge in continuing to steer Oman’s policies in a way that continues the trajectory crafted by Sultan Qaboos since 1970.

[1] Henderson, Simon. “The Omani Succession Envelope, Please.” Foreign Policy, 3 April. 2017, https://foreignpolicy.com/2017/04/03/the-omani-succession-envelope-please/.
[2] O’Reilly, Marc J. “Omanibalancing: Oman Confronts an Uncertain Future.” Middle East Journal 52, no. 1 (1998): 70–84.
[3] Esfandiary, Dina, and Ariane M. Tabatabai. “Scent of an Oman: The Sultanate Moves Toward the Saudis.” Foreign Affairs, January 17, 2017. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/persian-gulf/2017-01-17/scent-oman.
[4] Aboudi, Sami. “Domestic Concerns Drive Oman’s Newly Assertive Foreign Policy.” Reuters, December 23, 2013. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-oman-iran-diplomacy-analysis/analysis-domestic-concerns-drive-omans-newly-assertive-foreign-policy-idUSBRE9BM04S20131223.
[5] Castleberry, Asha. “Oman’s Independent Foreign Policy: A Triumph for Global Diplomacy.” PROJECT FOR THE STUDY OF THE 21ST CENTURY, September 18, 2015. https://projects21.org/2015/09/18/omans-independent-foreign-policy-a-triumph-for-global-diplomacy/.
[6] Gidda, Mirren. “How Much Longer Can Oman Be an Oasis of Peace in the Middle East?” Newsweek, January 28, 2017. https://www.newsweek.com/2017/02/10/oman-sultan-qaboos-terrorism-isis-al-qaeda-548682.html.
[7] Jones, Jeremy, and Nicholas Ridout. “Democratic Development in Oman.” Middle East Journal 59, no. 3 (2005): 376–92.
[8] Kechichian, Joseph A. “Oman: A Unique Foreign Policy Produces a Key Player in Middle Eastern and Global Diplomacy.” Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 1995. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_briefs/RB2501.html.
[9] Kechichian, Joseph A. Oman and the World: The Emergence of an Independent Foreign Policy. 1st edition. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 1995. https://www.rand.org/pubs/monograph_reports/MR680.html.
[10] Ikerd, Natalie. Iran-Saudi Dynamic Relations and the Role of Oman as a Negotiator. University of Central Florida, 2015, http://stars.library.ucf.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2866&context=honorstheses1990-2015.
[11] Lancaster, Pat. Oman: An Oasis of Tolerance. Mosaic, 2014, https://www.mara.om/wp-content/uploads/Mosaic_Oman-Oasis_TME0414-3.pdf.
[12] Lefebvre, Jefrey. “Oman’s Foreign Policy in the Twenty-First Century.” Middle East Policy 17, no. 1 (2009). https://www.mepc.org/omans-foreign-policy-twenty-first-century.
[13] Nereim, Vivian. “Oman’s Arab Spring Legacy: Good Governance? – Al Jazeera English,” March 4, 2015. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/03/oman-arab-spring-legacy-good-governance-150302061258658.html.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Worall, James. “Oman: The ‘Forgotten’ Corner of the Arab Spring | Middle East Policy Council.” Middle East Policy Council, vol. 19, no. 3, 2012, http://www.mepc.org/oman-forgotten-corner-arab-spring.
[16] Critchfield, Lois M. Oman Emerges: An American Company in an Ancient Kingdom. Vista, California: Selwa Press, 2012.
[17] Funsch, Linda Pappas. Oman Reborn: Balancing Tradition and Modernization. Palgrave Macmillan US, 2015.
[18] Furlow, Rachel. “Oman’s Looming Succession Crisis Is a Warning Sign in an Already Fractured Gulf.” World Politics Review, August 17, 2017. https://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/articles/22969/oman-s-looming-succession-crisis-is-a-warning-sign-in-an-already-fractured-gulf.
[19] Peterson, J. E. “The Nature of Succession in the Gulf.” Middle East Journal 55, no. 4 (2001): 580–601.
[20] Gidda, Mirren. “How Much Longer Can Oman Be an Oasis of Peace in the Middle East?”
[21] Luck, Taylor. “In Oman, a Train-of-Succession Mystery: Who Follows Qaboos?” Christian Science Monitor, April 17, 2017. https://www.csmonitor.com/World/Middle-East/2017/0417/In-Oman-a-train-of-succession-mystery-Who-follows-Qaboos.
[22] Henderson, Simon. “The Omani Succession Envelope, Please.” Foreign Policy, 3 April. 2017, https://foreignpolicy.com/2017/04/03/the-omani-succession-envelope-please/.
[23] Yang, Maya. “How Will Oman’s Next Sultan Steer Muscat’s Foreign Policy?” International Policy Digest, 13 Aug. 2017, https://intpolicydigest.org/2017/08/13/will-oman-s-next-sultan-steer-muscat-s-foreign-policy/.
[24] Sevier, Caroline. “The Costs of Relying on Aging Dictators.” Middle East Forum, vol. 15, no. 3, 2008, https://www.meforum.org/articles/2008/the-costs-of-relying-on-aging-dictators.
[25] Sbeta, Shatha. “Oman’s Unique Role in Balancing Power in the Middle East.” Arab Millennial, 15 July 2018, https://arabmillennial.net/2018/07/15/omans-unique-role-in-balancing-power-in-the-middle-east/.
[26] Henderson, Simon. “The Omani Succession Envelope, Please.” Foreign Policy, 3 April. 2017, https://foreignpolicy.com/2017/04/03/the-omani-succession-envelope-please/.
[27] Cafiero, Giorgio, and Theodore Karasik. Can Oman’s Stability Outlive Sultan Qaboos? Middle East Institute, 27 Apr. 2016, http://www.mei.edu/content/can-oman%E2%80%99s-stability-outlive-sultan-qaboos.
[28] Sherwood, Leah. “Understanding Oman’s Foreign Policy.” Oxford: TRENDS, 2017. https://www.oxgaps.org/files/analysis_-_sherwood.pdf.
[29] Yang, Maya. “How Will Oman’s Next Sultan Steer Muscat’s Foreign Policy?” International Policy Digest, 13 Aug. 2017, https://intpolicydigest.org/2017/08/13/will-oman-s-next-sultan-steer-muscat-s-foreign-policy/.
[30] Baidhani, Saleh. “Oman Works to Relaunch Yemen Diplomatic Talks as Fighting Continues.” The Arab Weekly, 11 June 2017, https://thearabweekly.com/oman-works-relaunch-yemen-diplomatic-talks-fighting-continues.
[31] Sullivan, Keith. Switzerland of the Middle East | RealClearWorld. 23 Sept. 2015, http://www.realclearworld.com/articles/2015/09/23/oman_switzerland_of_the_middle_east.html.

Benjamin Lutz
Benjamin Lutz
Benjamin Lutz is a recent graduate from Elon University with a Bachelor’s of Arts in International & Global Studies and Political Science where he concentrated on the Middle East, Peace Studies, and Inter-religious Studies. He is currently enrolled at the University of Bradford for a Master’s of Arts in Middle East Security and Peace and Conflict Studies, after which he plans to permanently move to the Middle East to conduct internal and regional peace diplomacy. His interests in Middle East diplomacy began with an eight-year-long engagement with Model United Nations and Model Arab League. He previously worked as a Research Intern at Generations for Peace, a youth-diplomacy peace-oriented NGO located in Amman, Jordan. You can reach him at blutz3@elon.edu