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Oman's Haitham sworn in as sultan after long-time leader Qaboos dies at 79

Oman's newly sworn-in Sultan Haitham bin Tariq al-Said carries the coffin of his cousin, the late Sultan Qaboos bin Said, during the funeral in Muscat, Oman on January 11, 2020.
Oman's newly sworn-in Sultan Haitham bin Tariq al-Said carries the coffin of his cousin, the late Sultan Qaboos bin Said, during the funeral in Muscat, Oman on January 11, 2020. © Sultan Al Hasani/REUTERS

Haitham bin Tariq, Oman's culture minister and the 65-year-old cousin of late Sultan Qaboos, has been sworn in as the new royal ruler, the government said Saturday.

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"Haitham bin Tariq was sworn in as the new sultan of the country... after a meeting of the family which decided to appoint the one who was chosen by the sultan," the government said in a tweet.

Oman's ailing Sultan Qaboos bin Said, one of the Middle East's longest serving rulers who maintained the country's neutrality in regional struggles, died on Friday and the Gulf state's high military council began the process to choose his successor.

Qaboos, who died at the age of 79, was unmarried and had no children, and left no apparent heir.

According to the Omani constitution, the royal family had three days to determine the successor and if they failed to agree, the person chosen by Qaboos in a letter addressed to the family would be the successor.

Most experts had expected the throne to go to Asad bin Tariq, another cousin, who was appointed deputy prime minister for international relations and cooperation affairs in 2017 in what was seen as a clear message of support.

Haitham, a sports enthusiast, held the position of undersecretary of the ministry of foreign affairs for political affairs before becoming the minister of heritage and culture in the mid-1990s.

He was also the first head of Oman's football federation in the early 80s.

Three days of mourning

Three days of official mourning have been declared with flags flown at half-mast for 40 days, for the Western-backed Qaboos, 79, who had ruled since taking over in a bloodless coup in 1970 with the help of former colonial power Britain.

State news agency ONA did not give a cause of death, but Qaboos had been unwell for years and spent a week in Belgium undergoing medical treatment in early December.

The high military council, in a statement carried on state media on Saturday, called on Oman's ruling family council to convene to choose a new ruler.

There had been wide speculation over the succession as domestic challenges loom large, from strained state finances to high unemployment in the relatively small oil producer, and at a time of heightened tension between Iran and the United States and U.S. ally Saudi Arabia.

"I imagine that the succession itself will be a smooth process within Oman," Kristian Coates Ulrichsen of the Texas-based Rice University's Baker Institute told Reuters.

"But the wildcard is whether any of Oman's neighbours might try to pressure the new sultan as he settles into power - just as the Saudis and Emiratis tried to pressure Emir Tamim in the weeks and months after he assumed power in Qatar in 2013."

Diplomacy 

Condolences started pouring in for the white-bearded Qaboos.

Iran's top diplomat said Saturday that his death was a "loss for the region" and expressed hopes that relations between the two nations will grow under Qaboos's successor.

"We offer our dear neighbour Oman our condolences...(and) we congratulate it for its selection of His Majesty Haitham bin Tariq as sultan, hoping our relations grow as they have before and that the future draws inspiration from the past," Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted in Arabic.

Former US President George W. Bush said in a statement that Qaboos had been a stable force in the Middle East. Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum in a Twitter post described him as the sultan of honour, affection and wisdom.

Oman has long been to the Middle East what neutral Switzerland is to global diplomacy, balancing ties between two vast neighbours locked in a regional struggle, Saudi Arabia to the west and Iran to the north.

Oman maintains friendly ties with Washington and Tehran and helped mediate secret US-Iran talks in 2013 that led two years later to the international nuclear pact which Washington quit in 2018.

Muscat did not take sides in a Gulf dispute that saw Riyadh and its allies impose a boycott on Qatar in mid-2017 and did not join a Saudi-led military coalition that intervened in Yemen against the Iran-aligned Houthi movement.

Oman's diplomatic centrality has been a factor of Qaboos' personality, said Simon Henderson, director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

"It is hard to see how Oman can involve itself in the Yemen, Iran and Qatar issues until a new leader has established himself - which means for the foreseeable future."

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

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