Oman has named Haitham bin Tariq Al Said as its new ruler, following the death of his cousin Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said, the Arab world’s longest serving monarch, who forged the country’s modern identity and pursued a neutral path through the region’s wars and disputes.
Official media said Sultan Haitham, who serves as culture minister, had sworn an oath of office as television aired the funeral of Sultan Qaboos.
The ruling family council opened a letter in which the late sultan — who had no children — had named his cousin as successor, state television said.
“It is with great sorrow and grief that the royal court mourns His Majesty Sultan Qaboos,” a government statement said in the early hours of Saturday. Three days of mourning have been announced.
Omanis, many of whom have only known life under Qaboos, had been praying for his health since the ruler last month returned from Belgium where he had undergone medical checks amid reports of cancer. “We still need you,” was a common message echoing across social media in recent weeks.
Sultan Haitham’s prompt appointment should damp concerns about stability through the succession process. Described as a “steady hand”, the 65-year-old, Oxford-educated minister has extensive cabinet and foreign affairs experience.
Sultan Qaboos rose to power in 1970 at the age of 29, leading a bloodless coup against his conservative father who had shunned development. The modernising young sultan used the country’s emerging oil wealth to transform the state.
With outside backing, including that of Oman’s closest western ally, the UK, he fought off a communist insurgency that had emerged from his home region, Dhofar and sought to spread Marxism through the sheikhdoms of the Gulf.
Sultan Qaboos united a country split along geographical and confessional lines, forging a sense of national identity while avoiding sectarian divisions that have plagued the rest of the Middle East. The majority of Omanis follow the rare Ibadi form of Islam with minorities from the Sunni and Shia Muslim communities.
Widely loved, the sultan nonetheless wielded absolute power, retaining most key state portfolios. He introduced a consultative council with limited powers that later was selected through national elections. But freedom of expression — as in many Gulf states — remains confined and dissent is not tolerated.
The country was briefly dragged into the tumult of the Arab spring, when protesters rose up in 2011 to demand better living standards and an end to corruption. The sultan cracked down on the uprising while also acceding to some of the demonstrators’ demands, removing ministers and creating public sector jobs.
Oman, with a population of around 5m, has outsized influence thanks to its strategic position on the south-east of the Arabian Peninsula, from the oil chokepoint of the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Gulf to its southern border with Yemen.
Sultan Qaboos, a close western ally, chose a neutral foreign policy in regional disputes, sustaining diplomatic ties with both sides of the Iran-Iraq war during the 1980s.
Good relations with Iran, which under the Shah had helped the young sultan fight off the Marxist insurgency, were sustained during the era of the Islamic republic. The sultanate became a centre for regional diplomacy, especially as a conduit for western powers to Tehran.
Muscat was the location for secret talks between the US and the Islamic republic that forged the landmark 2013 nuclear pact with global powers, since reversed by President Donald Trump.
Oman, like other Gulf states, has been calling for talks to calm tension that has in recent weeks brought Washington and Tehran to the brink of war.