The coronation of Oman’s new ruler on Saturday likely came two weeks after Sultan Qaboos’ death — a meticulously planned and highly choreographed transfer of power hastened by the US assassination of Iran’s top commander, Qassem Soleimani.
“The situation requires an active sultan,” a source in Muscat close to the army told Asia Times on condition of anonymity.
The US on January 3 assassinated Iran’s top general, Qassem Soleimani, in a drone strike at Baghdad airport. Iran responded with a barrage of missiles on an Iraqi base hosting American personnel, warning its ultimate goal was to rid the region of US troops even as it signaled its calculated reply was complete. Hours later, Iranian forces accidentally shot down a Ukrainian Airlines commercial flight, killing all 176 passengers and crew aboard.
The rapid escalation, the Omani source said, “hastened” the coronation of Sultan Qaboos’ chosen successor, his cousin Haitham bin Tariq.
“The general belief in the country is that His Majesty Qaboos has been dead for some time, but they needed to pass the budget and get the house in order,” he noted, suggesting the funeral had been rehearsed for two weeks.
The timing of his successor’s announcement was sped up, however, “timed to bring new perspectives to the US-Iran escalation”, and to show the world the Omanis had a ready mediator at the helm, according to the source.
Oman’s new ruler, Sultan Haitham bin Tareq, has previously served in Oman’s ministry of foreign affairs, achieving the rank of secretary general of the critical ministry.
“With his extensive foreign policy background, I am almost certain that it will be his priority now to defuse the tension,” Ahmed al-Mukhaini, a Muscat-based public policy analyst, told Asia Times.
Path of the Sultan
At his coronation on Saturday, Haitham pledged to follow the policy of “non-interference” that guided the late Qaboos – a pointed message to regional and international powers who might wish to steer Oman off its commitment to neutrality, especially in regards to the US-Iran standoff.
“We will follow the path of the late sultan,” Haitham said in his first public speech after being sworn in as leader of the Arabian Peninsula country, which borders the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen, and which sits across the narrow Strait of Hormuz from Iran.
Haitham expressed his belief in “not interfering in the internal affairs of others, respecting other nations’ sovereignty and international cooperation.”
Oman maintains close relations with both the United States and Iran, and has managed to walk a tightrope between the two foes even at times of extreme distrust.
Five years ago, Oman served as a backchannel between Washington and Tehran, paving the way for a 2015 nuclear agreement that became the hallmark of Barack Obama’s presidency.
When Donald Trump exited the nuclear deal in 2018 and backed the aggressive anti-Iran stance of Saudi Arabia, Qaboos took steps to re-emphasize Oman as a neutral player, notably welcoming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Muscat in October 2018.
It would be one of his last public engagements.
Positioned at the meeting point of the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean, the sultanate of Oman under Qaboos established itself as the Gulf’s discreet mediator.
Although it is a member of the Saudi-dominated Gulf Cooperation Council, Oman was the only Gulf country not to have taken part in the Saudi-led military coalition’s fight against Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi rebels four years ago.
That decision, which initially earned Oman the distrust of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, has more recently been acknowledged as the prudent course of action, with the warring sides entrusting Muscat with hosting talks.
Oman was also the first and only Gulf state to receive an Israeli premier warmly and publicly. That move taken by almost any other Gulf or Arab state would have elicited public outcry, but because of Oman’s consistent foreign policy, it received only muted criticisms.
An op-ed in the Saudi daily Asharq al-Awsat following Netanyahu’s visit offered tacit approval of the meeting, contrasting Oman’s transparency and complementary outreach to Israel and the Palestinians with rival Qatar’s history of attempting to play both sides.
“[The Omanis] make their steps, bear the consequences, declare them publicly, do not flatter nor betray, and most importantly, have the courage to declare what they see right,” wrote former editor-in-chief Salman al-Dossary.
The sultanate has meanwhile been quietly working toward a gas pipeline to neighboring Iran, despite the reinstatement of American sanctions on Iran’s petroleum sector, which went into effect November 5 — its ties with Israel expected to help shield the sultanate from American repercussions.
At the news of the sultan’s death, Iran’s top diplomat tweeted it was a “loss for the region” and expressed hope Qaboos’ successor would continue to foster relations.
Should Trump or any successor seek to engage Iran in the future, it is Oman that will be called upon, once again, to serve as the go-between.