Omani Sultan Haitham bin Tariq al-Said has made some remarkably bold political points in the first year of his reign. The sultan of Oman has been able to prove that he is a seasoned politician with strategic vision and concrete tactics.
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The provisions stipulated by the Basic Law regarding the position and prerogatives of the crown prince were more than needed. The clause on the mechanisms of the transfer of power — from generation to generation– addresses a major issue that has been a source of concern and uncertainty for everyone in Oman, from the royal family to the common man of the street.
How did Sultan Haitham deal with this serious and important but problematic issue? In seeking an answer, one needs to look at the gradual timing and adopted formulas.
First, the timing was quite propitious. Sultan Haitham is still in the first year of his reign. Every Omani believes that the new ruler has the right to add his own touches, without breaking with the past.
Second, the choice of timing was right. The last five years of the late Sultan Qaboos bin Said’s rule are still fresh in the minds of Omanis, with the memories and anxieties they bear.
Sultan Qaboos laid the foundations of modern Oman and his presence was strongly felt in many details. Perhaps more than two-thirds of Omanis knew no other ruler than Sultan Qaboos. On a personal level, it was difficult for them to see him ill. It was also difficult for them to see the state slide towards stagnation with his illness and have no clarity about his successor.
Sultan Haitham addressed this important issue with his recent decision. He did so in a manner consistent with the prevailing rules of monarchical systems and in harmony with Oman’s regional environment. The person of the crown prince was determined by the amended Basic Law, and then by a clear selection hierarchy that takes into account all contingencies.
Third, the context of the timing was a founding moment. The power transfer mechanism included a paragraph that seemed at first glance out of context. But it was not.
It is true that the transfer of power was between members of the royal family, but if it was announced through the Omani Defense Council, it meant that the council had a crucial role in the highest political and fateful decision in Oman.
The sultanate follows the Ibadi school of thought, which draws up but does not restrict the mechanisms for choosing the ruler in the event of a vacancy in the top leadership position. It backs them with the will system and with the choice made by the religious and political personalities qualified by Islamic tradition to choose the ruler, including among them the heir apparent.
The Oman Defence Council thus becomes the secretary and executor of the choice, similar to the role of the Prophet’s companion Abdullah bin Omar when his father, Caliph Omar bin Al-Khattab, entrusted him with the role of “secretary” of the mini-companions’ council that decided who would be the next caliph.
Times have changed, of course, and monarchies have stabilised in Islamic countries, far from that embryonic stage of the state in early Islam.
Fourth, agreement on timing was clear. The Ibadi-based religious establishment was involved in the decision and did not register any objection. Ibadism is a political and religious doctrine.
The Ibadi institution has evolved with time, and it realises that the fatwas of the early days of Islam excluding succession and the appointment of a crown prince were fatwas of their time and have no sanctity as long as they were based on human initiative and interpretation. The mufti in our time has the same entitlement to fatwas and change that existed at that time.
Our current era needs stability. The mini-council of the Prophet’s companions was composed of members of an exceptional elite in an exceptional time.
They were six among the people qualified to select the caliph in their era. In our time, the select qualified few are defined in a different way that is appropriate for expanding and large societies with complex relationships.
If Sultan Haitham’s strategic view is present in the depth of the change introduced in the Basic Law, linking the matter to the Oman Council and its election, to freedoms and to oversight, there are also tactical adjustments in the decision process stemming not only from the share or right of the new Sultan to introduce change, but to the concomitance of the decision with current developments.
There is the global crisis associated with the pandemic. The world is witnessing a new reformulation of everything — from economics to politics to international relations. Why doesn’t Oman have a chance for internal change that is not limited to the Basic Law?
There is a decline in oil exports and revenues in all producing countries. These countries, from the United States, to Russia, to Saudi Arabia, to the small oil producers, are re-drawing their policies on this basis.
The time of abundance is over, and countries need firm commitment by power to redistribute the revenues of this important resource based on sound policy choices by strong authorities that consult, appreciate and proceed with their decisions.
States’ destinies cannot be left in the hands of a few or be determined solely behind closed doors. The decision-making circle in Oman, according to the new approach, is much wider than it has ever been before.
There has been an accumulation of economic scarcity globally with the onset of the crisis in 2008. Any country experiencing a long-term shortage of resources will count and try to “stretch its dollars,” so to speak, in order to make do with it for a longer period of time, that is until there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Sultan Haitham is a contemporary of this time, having served as a prominent minister in the Omani government, attended all cabinet sessions and was thoroughly briefed on the details of using the state’s resources until the oil imports crisis further deepens.
Tactically, too, the new decisions provide an auxiliary, executive arm to Sultan Haitham at this important juncture in the history of the region and the sultanate. The crown prince will be the sultan’s closest aide, and his position allows him to be an actor in governmental policies, both internally and externally.
This pattern has become prevalent today in the Gulf in particular, where the role of crown princes has increased significantly, and the sultanate of Oman is keen not to be the exception.
The Sultanate of Oman is part of a region in crisis. Stability has been absent in the Gulf since 1979, the day the Iranian revolution took place. Some say since Britain decided to withdraw from eastern Suez in the late 1960s.
Today, Oman may be theoretically removed from threats, but there are no guarantees that the problems of neighbouring countries will not eventually affect it.
Oman’s leader can feel the influences from the western part of the country, whether from the side of Mahra region of Yemen, from the burning Yemen war, or from the east, as Oman oversees the Strait of Hormuz, which Iran uses as a weapon against the West and the United States specifically, and blackmails the countries of the region through which most of its oil production passes.
Although the royal decrees are couched in general terms and do not mention specific names, the name Sayyid Theyazin bin Haitham is present as the next crown prince when the decree naming him is issued and when he takes the oath of office, based on the provisions laid down by the new Basic Law.
During the first year of his father’s reign, he served in the culture ministry — which Sultan Haitham led for many years — in addition to the ministry of youth and sports.
There is additional testimony from Arab Londoners and those who follow the community’s activities and embassies. The period that Sayyid Theyazin spent in the Royal Office at the Embassy of Oman in London was a significant period rich in events and will hence add to his experience.
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