No One Knows Who—Or What—Comes Next
If Qaboos and the royal family have a succession plan, they’ve certainly been quite tight-lipped about it. But opacity (or absence) of a succession plan is increasingly deeply troubling to the region’s actors, including Iran, Saudi Arabia and even the United States. That anxiety coincides with an economically painful time for Oman, as the oil crisis has pushed GDP per capita below $20,000 from its flusher highs in 2008, worsening a growing unemployment problem. Earlier this month, Moody’s issued a report that Oman’s reliance on oil and gas (between 2010 and 2015, oil and gas represented 70 percent of total exports and 90 percent of government revenues) makes it even more susceptible to shocks in global commodities prices. For all of Qaboos’s gifts, he hasn’t particularly diversified Oman’s economy. The fear is that despite Qaboos’s successes, he will most immediately bequeath to the next sultan the problem of a large and idle youth population in a country with dwindling economic prospects.
Few Omanis, who honestly regard Qaboos with the loving goodwill of a founding father, openly speculate about his eventual successor. Unlike other Gulf royal families, Qaboos hasn’t particularly handed offices of state to royal family members. Officially, Oman’s basic law requires the Al Said family to choose a successor within three days of Qaboos’s death. Tantalizingly, however, if the family fails to make a consensus choice, they will open a sealed letter that contains a recommendation from Qaboos himself. That might seem clear enough, but there’s no way to know whether Qaboos’s death would catalyze the kind of pent-up royal infighting that’s marked other Gulf countries.
The most important figure might be his cousin, Fahd bin Mahmoud Al Said, deputy prime minister since 1970. Fahd often represents the sultan abroad, and attended a joint U.S.-GCC security conference at Camp David last May. But Fahd himself is already seventy years old. That means that most observers have looked instead to the three sons of Qaboos’s late uncle, Sayyid Tariq bin Taimur Al Said: Assad bin Tariq, Haitham bin Tariq and Shihab bin Tariq. None, however, seem to have a particularly high profile in government service and, in any event, far less experience than the cosmopolitan Fahd. Assad, already sixty-six years old, served as the commander of Oman’s armed forces, fueling speculation that he could have the support of the military. Haitham, who is fifty-nine, is the country’s culture minister, while Shihab, who is sixty-one, is a former naval commander. No matter who winds up succeeding Qaboos, none—not even Fahd—would bring to the sultanate the kind of authority that Qaboos currently enjoys. A dispute over succession could leave Oman susceptible to internal power struggles, especially among tribal leaders in the country’s interior, who enjoyed autonomy from Muscat until the Qaboos era.
The speculation all amounts to educated guessing. But the consequences could weigh quite heavily on the region and on U.S. policy.
Kevin A. Lees is an attorney in Washington, DC, and the founder and editor of Suffragio, a website on global electoral politics.
Image: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Sultan Qaboos of Oman. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Department of State