The looming succession in Oman could affect not only domestic stability, but also change the region’s balance of power and affect U.S. interests in the Gulf region. The succession process of Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said is particularly important as it will be the next battlefront between regional powers. Sultan Qaboos is the only Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leader who serves as his nation’s prime minister, foreign minister, defense minister, governor of the central bank, head of state, and commander-in-chief—all in one.
For security reasons, and for fear of domestic players and regional actors jockeying for power in order to reorient the next leader, the succession process was intentionally left opaque. Sultan Qaboos does not have a known heir and has not publicly announced a successor. According to article 6 of the sultanate’s basic law, in the event that Sultan Qaboos passes away, the family council (of which the full composition is unclear) will meet to choose the next sultan within three days. It is expected during these three days that Oman will go under military rule led by General Sultan bin Mohammed al-Numani, a close advisor of Sultan Qaboos. If they do not succeed in appointing the next sultan, then the nation’s defense council, head of the supreme court and the heads of two chambers of the consultative council will open two envelopes that will identify Sultan Qaboos’s successor.
In regards to contenders for succession, there are three candidates considered the most probable frontrunners—Tariq bin Taimur al Said’s three sons, who are all in their 60s: Asaad (oldest brother, Sultan’s Special Envoy and Deputy Prime Minister), Haitham (Minister of Heritage and Culture) and Shihab bin Tariq al Said (Sultan’s Advisor and former Navy Commander). It is important to note that it was their sister who was once married to Sultan Qaboos. There are some signs that may put Asaad ahead in the race for succession. One is that a rare royal decree was issued on March 3, 2017 naming Asaad bin Tariq as the deputy prime minister. This move, along with him leading important delegations on behalf of the Sultan Qaboos, raises eyebrows since the Sultan has been keen on keeping the circle of power very narrow. Although Assad bin Tariq and his brothers are often suspected primary options, some reports have named the next-generation with specific emphasis on Taimur bin Asaad al Said (the son of Asaad bin Tariq) as a possible successor. Other reports have stated there are as many as 85 contenders that could be named the next Sultan of Oman.
Regional Politics and Succession
Oman is coined as the “Switzerland of the Gulf” due to its non-interference policy and its careful balance of relations with all GCC states on one side and Iran on the other. Being the longest-serving head of state in the GCC, Sultan Qaboos has managed to consolidate the levers of power in Oman, which has made succession a highly delicate matter not only for the future of Oman but also for the broader Gulf region. It could lead to dissent within Oman or create a window of opportunity for powerful neighbors, such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia, to influence Oman’s politics.
In the current tense environment in the post-Gulf crisis era, the very condition of neutrality counterintuitively engenders friction. For Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the succession represents a tipping point opportunity to bring Oman into their orbit and consolidate their regional influence. However, the two countries have conflicting interests, as in Yemen, and Iran will do its utmost to prevent either state from gaining control. The fact that the Iranian Foreign Minister was visiting Muscat while the Sultan was in his last stage of illness is a sign that Iran will do whatever is necessary to protect its interests in Oman.
The two smaller Gulf states within the GCC, Kuwait, and Qatar lack the capacity to influence events in Oman. However, instability in the one truly neutral country in the GCC will negatively impact their interests. They depend on Oman to play the critical role of balancing and hedging against the influence of their two larger neighbors. In the hopes of pulling Oman into their respective foreign policy orbits, the UAE and Saudi Arabia will likely use their most popular tool of influence, economic statecraft.
However, as in the case of Qatar, any aggression against Oman from its GCC neighbors will likely push Oman even closer to Iran. Oman is not constrained by sectarian issues since its population is largely Ibadi, and historically Iran has supported Oman such as in the Dhofar Rebellion. If Iran were to become an even closer ally of Oman, it would strain the already precarious environment in the Gulf, especially since many GCC leaders believe Iran has already surrounded the region in Iraq, Yemen, and on other fronts.
Oman has positioned itself as a mediator between the U.S. and Iran. The U.S. has relied on Oman to be a tool of backchannel diplomacy that assisted with Yemen and arguably a broker in the Iran deal. The Obama Administration was perceived to have closer relations with Oman due to the JCPOA. However, the Trump Administration less focused on Oman than its predecessor. Nonetheless, instability in Oman will have a negative effect on U.S. interest in the region.
Every GCC state has a visionary who has built the modern foundation that is definitive for placing their nation on the map such as Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan in UAE or the Qatari Emir’s father, Shiekh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani. If you ask the average Omani about Sultan Qaboos, they often respond pridefully that he is not merely a national leader, he is considered to be a man of great vision and is considered to be a true statesman that transformed Oman. When he came to power, there were just three schools and hardly any paved roads in the country. Today, the nation’s infrastructure is robust and developed, and schools are in almost every district.
Yet there are signs of economic distress, projections show that the current oil production Oman is set to run its course in 15 years, and similar to its GCC counterparts, economic diversification is a challenge. Given its limited oil reserves are shrinking, Oman has signed an MOU for developing a natural gas pipeline with Iran to relieve the pressure on its domestic resources, scheduled to be completed by 2020.
Challenges of succession and changes in the regional balance are not issues unique to Oman. In the next few years, we are likely to witness leadership successions in five out of the six Gulf States – Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, UAE, and Saudi Arabia. Although the two most powerful states, Saudi Arabia and UAE appear to have set their de facto rulers to take the thrones, the other smaller states, especially the next rulers in Oman and Kuwait, can greatly affect the balance of power in the Gulf region.
Dania Thafer (@Dania_Thafer) is the Executive Director of Gulf International Forum and a Visiting Scholar at Georgetown University.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.