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Friday January 24th, 2020 2:24AM

Oman names culture minister as successor to Sultan Qaboos

By The Associated Press
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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Oman announced Saturday culture minister Haitham bin Tariq Al Said as the new ruler of the Gulf Arab country, ending speculation over the mystery of who would succeed longtime ruler Sultan Qaboos bin Said.

The announcement on Omani state television was read over footage showing thousands gathered in the capital, Muscat, for the funeral of Sultan Qaboos who ruled the country for 50 years and did not have any children. His choice of successor was a closely guarded secret believed to have been known only to the sultan.

“It is a sad day in Oman, but also represents a new beginning with a new leader,” a presenter on state TV said soberly.

Qaboos, the Middle East's longest-ruling monarch, came to power when he deposed his father in a 1970 palace coup. He was known internationally for his diplomatic balancing in the Persian Gulf. Under his leadership, Oman often served as a facilitator of talks between adversaries, including Iran and the U.S.

The new sultan vowed in an address carried on Omani state TV to continue the foreign policy approach of Qaboos, one that he said is based on peaceful coexistence between nations and on non-interference.

Oman, a former British protectorate that sits on the southeastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula across from Iran, is a close ally of Washington and viewed as a valuable regional player. It shares borders with Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates.

Qaboos died at the age of 79 from an illness that was never publicly disclosed or confirmed. For years, he'd sought treatment in Germany where he spent eight months between 2014 and 2015.

Following Islamic tradition, he was buried before nightfall.

His successor is a career diplomat whose role as minister of national heritage and culture helped project Omani influence. Local media in the Gulf reported Sultan Haitham is a cousin of Qaboos.

Sultan Haitham has years of experience with the foreign ministry starting in 1986. He served previously as the foreign ministry's undersecretary for political affairs and its secretary general. He has sometimes also chaired meetings of the Cabinet.

The new sultan was selected in an intricate process that was broadcast on state TV. The country's Defense Council, in the presence of the Royal Family Council, was shown cutting open a sealed letter in which Sultan Qaboos names his choice for successor. The Defense Council then read the contents of the letter aloud before all those present in the meeting, announcing Haitham bin Tariq Al Said as the dynasty's heir.

According to Oman's succession laws, the letter is to be opened if the Royal Family Council cannot agree on a successor within three days. The Al Said family has ruled Oman since the eighteenth century, and once ruled over Zanzibar too.

The quick announcement of a successor and the unsealing of the letter suggest the ruling family wanted to name a successor without delay. The speed and manner in which a successor was named could help project a sense of unity, continuity and stability as tensions run high in the Persian Gulf amid escalations between Iran and the United States.

In Muscat, soldiers stood guard along the streets and troops stood with machine guns atop SUVs as Omanis gathered along a highway to see the motorcade that was carrying the sultan's body for burial.

Thousands also gathered at the Sultan Qaboos Mosque where funeral prayers were held over the flag-draped casket carrying the sultan's body. The mosque is an architecturally stunning complex of white marble and manicured gardens that reflects how the sultan modernized his country without eschewing its cultural heritage or building towering skyscrapers like other neighboring Gulf capitals.

The new sultan is known in international policy circles because of his interactions with world leaders and other royals. For example, he greeted Prince Charles and his wife Camilla when the British royal couple arrived in Oman in 2016.

This experience “was considered to have provided him with the necessary political gravitas and foreign policy expertise to help steer Oman into a post-Qaboos era,” said Sigurd Neubauer, a Middle East expert, in an analysis for The Arab Gulf States Institution in Washington.

Sultan Qaboos had shaped Oman's policy of non-interference, refusing to join the Saudi-led coalition at war in Yemen while keeping the country's border with Yemen open throughout the conflict. Oman has also played a conciliatory role between the Houthis and their Gulf enemies, hosting peace talks and facilitating prisoner exchanges. He also did not join a Saudi- and Emirati-led boycott of neighboring Qatar, and maintained relations with archenemies Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Oman was the only Gulf Arab country that kept its embassy in Damascus open throughout Syria's now 9-year civil war. Syrian President Bashar Assad sent his condolences to Oman's new leader and expressed his confidence that Sultan Haitham would keep on the same track as his predecessor.

In 2018, the sultan hosted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a surprise visit. It marked the first visit by an Israeli leader in more than 20 years to the tiny Gulf state, further cementing Oman's unique strategic ability to be a facilitator and even mediator amid fractured Mideast states.

The new ruler of Oman faces monumental challenges in steering his country both regionally and domestically.

Small protests broke out in Oman as part of the wider Arab Spring unrest in 2011, revealing discontent over corruption, unemployment and rising prices within the sultanate.

Oman has struggled to diversify its economy amid lower oil prices. Sultan Haitham, in addition to being culture minister, was in charge of the country's Vision 2040 program that lays out strategies to make the country less reliant on oil and gas exports for revenue. It states that 93% of economic activity should be fueled by non-oil sectors and calls for 42% of Omanis to be employed by private businesses rather than the public sector.

Saudi Arabia described Qaboos as the man who modernized Oman. The United Arab Emirates and Egypt described Qaboos as a “wise leader." The UAE, which has had tense relations with Qaboos in the past, announced three days of mourning.

In Yemen, the Houthis, who are at war with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, described him as leader who worked to end the country's 5-year-old conflict.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Qaboos was “an exceptionally wise and respected leader who will be missed enormously.”

“He leaves a profound legacy, not only in Oman but across the region too,” Johnson said in a statement.

In the United States, former President George W. Bush issued a statement saying Qaboos was “a stable force in the Middle East and a strong U.S. ally.”

"His Majesty had a vision for a modern, prosperous, and peaceful Oman, and he willed that vision into reality,” Bush said, adding that he and his wife visited him in Muscat last fall.

___

Associated Press writers Jon Gambrell in Dubai, Jill Lawless in London, Maggie Hyde in Cairo and Ahmed al-Haj in Sanaa, Yemen contributed to this report.

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