Oman embarks upon a new chapter in its history

Sultan Haitham has the opportunity to build on the foundation put in place by his predecessor Sultan Qaboos

File - In this Oman, Monday, Jan. 14, 2019 file photo, Sultan of Oman Qaboos bin Said al-Said sits during a meeting with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the Beit Al Baraka Royal Palace in Muscat. Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said, the Mideast's longest-ruling monarch who seized power in a 1970 palace coup and pulled his Arabian sultanate into modernity while carefully balancing diplomatic ties between adversaries Iran and the U.S., has died. He was 79. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool Photo via AP, File)
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Forty days have passed since the death of Oman's Sultan Qaboos bin Said, marking the end of one era and the dawn of another. With the official period of mourning having come to a close on Wednesday and national flags across the sultanate flying full mast once again, it is important to remember the legacy of Oman's departed leader – but also to reflect on the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead for the country and its new head of state, Sultan Haitham bin Tariq.

The longest-serving ruler in the Middle East, Sultan Qaboos was a father figure to Oman’s more than 4 million residents for almost half a century, a period during which he transformed what was once a sleepy and closed-off nation into a stable, progressive and relatively well-off one.

Indeed, after he succeeded his father in 1970 at the age of 29, Sultan Qaboos ushered in a period of development in Oman, which reportedly had only 12 hospital beds, 10 kilometres of surfaced roads and three primary schools – all of them for boys. He invested revenue from the oil industry into building critical infrastructure, while uniting the country and championing a tolerant society.

And while Sultan Qaboos will be remembered as the great moderniser of Oman, it is just as important to recognise him as a foreign policy pragmatist who played the role of a mediator between the region's awkward neighbours. A founding member of the Gulf Co-operation Council in 1981 – in the midst of the Iran-Iraq War – he also maintained dialogue with the regime in Tehran.

Unsurprisingly, Sultan Qaboos' agenda both at home and abroad were intrinsically linked to each other. In his tribute for The National, the former British prime minister Tony Blair wrote that a great source of the sultan's anxiety was the adverse impact regional instability could have on Oman's path to development. "He would take me outside the room we were in, point across the sea towards Iran and say: 'You see this short distance, that is why we cannot afford conflict'," Mr Blair recalled.

It is this pragmatic approach that last month ensured a smooth transition of power. Despite concerns that no successor had been announced for years, a new ruler was named within hours of his death when a sealed envelope was opened on January 10.

The ascension of Sultan Haitham should no doubt signal a continuity of his predecessor's policies. While facing a daunting task trying to follow in the footsteps of Sultan Qaboos, it is worth pointing out that he is well qualified for the top job. Formerly the culture minister, his 18-year stint in the foreign ministry will prove useful as Oman continues to play the balancing role in the Middle East at a time of great strife in parts of the region.

He has also taken over the reins at a difficult time for the global economy, reflecting on his country’s financial state. Real GDP growth, which turned negative in 2017, remained low last year. The Omani population is also one of the youngest in the world – 46 per cent of its citizens are under 19 – which is always a blessing and a responsibility for policymakers.

However, as chairman of the committee that two years ago unveiled Oman's Vision 2040 – the government's strategy to diversify the economy away from oil while targeting a growth rate of five per cent per year in 20 years' time – Sultan Haitham already has a set of goals to achieve, as well as a blueprint on how to go about achieving them.

He deserves all the support he can get from the region and the wider world as Oman begins a new chapter in its history.