Oman’s 50th National Day marks a new beginning for the nation under Sultan Haitham bin Tarik, but the new ruler has a formidable task before him to emulate the success of his much-loved predecessor.
Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who ruled Oman for 50 years, died at the age of 79 in January this year. He was viewed as a hero by many of his subjects after bringing the country out of obscurity to a modern nation by building infrastructure, schools, creating jobs and reconciling tribal differences between feuding groups.
Sultan Haitham has inherited a country with all modern facilities in place but his immediate challenge is to revive the economy, which has suffered from falling oil prices and chronic budget deficits in the past five years.
The country faces billions in loan repayments and needs even more money to create jobs for its young population. In order to claw back some cash for the government, he is under pressure to make changes to the cradle-to-grave social benefits Omanis enjoyed under the late ruler.
Sultan Haitham was quick to get off the mark when he ordered a cabinet reshuffle only three months into his leadership. He trimmed the cabinet to 19 ministries from 26, retired all civil servants who had served for more than 30 years and removed the positions of state advisers to save government expenditure.
He is also going a step further by introducing value added tax (VAT) in the second quarter of 2021, as well as ordering income tax for higher earners to boost the national coffers, though no date has been set. If the income tax is implemented, Oman will be the first country in the GCC to do so.
Economists said the word ‘renaissance’ has been synonymous with Sultan Qaboos throughout his 50-year reign but the new ruler has a harder task to start the second one.
“The second renaissance is currently being talked about since Sultan Haitham has already started the economic revival that would be connected to him, perhaps 50 years from now. However, only time will tell if he is starting a second renaissance or not,” said economist Salah Al Jardani.
But the challenge is not only in the fiscal plan, controlling state expenditure and creating employment for graduates, but outside the borders of the country.
Sultan Haitham could find retaining Oman's reputation for political neutrality a tough challenge with ongoing regional disputes. At the beginning of this year, Oman was once again the mediator in a situation that nearly sparked a war as tensions flared up between Iran and the United States over the killing of Gen Qassem Suleimani.
“Sultan Qaboos was a master mediator. It was a quality he mastered very early on as a Sultan and he was well respected by world leaders throughout his rule. The constant conflicts between Iran and the US would not go away and Haitham would always be compared with the late Sultan in his ability to mediate in these conflicts,” Ahmed Al Esri, a political analyst, said.
But other analysts said Sultan Haitham’s previous 20-year experience as the General Secretary in the foreign ministry has prepared him for tight negotiations.
“He was part of many political mediations while he was in the foreign ministry and he knows exactly how to deal with conflicts and tensions that involve Oman’s neighbours and foreign powers,” said Khalfan Al Sabei.