Oman’s Sultan Is Dying. The UAE-Abu Dhabi Ruler Moves in on the Succession
Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said of Oman, aged 76, has been under treatment for colon cancer since at least 2014, with long, unexplained absences from his country. In March 2015 he returned home to Muscat from eight months in a German hospital; last year, he was away for two months, from mid-February to mid-March.
This year, rumors that his days are numbered abounded, especially after he failed to turn up at the Arab League Summit in Jordan at the end of March and his seat was taken by the Omani Minister of Heritage and Culture Sayyid Haitham bin Tariq Al Said.
A member of the Al Said royal family, Sayyid Haitham, 63, won close attention as the prospective successor to the dying sultan. His name was then put down as Oman’s top representative by the organizers of the Global Cultural Leadership Summit taking place in the Abu Dhabi-UAE oil emirate on April 9-13.
According to arcane customs still practiced among the Emirates’ ruling castes, this act confers a form of recognition of Sayyid Haitham as the next Sultan of Oman by Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
The crown prince owns a special interest in Muscat’s affairs.
While Abu Dhabi-UAE and Oman share a common border, they are divided by their support for the opposing sides of the Yemen war: The former is aligned with Saudi military intervention on behalf of the Yemeni government, while Sultan Qaboos secretly backs the Houthi rebels. His army turns a blind eye on the Iranian truck convoys rumbling through Oman heavily laden with missiles, artillery pieces and radar for the Yemen insurgents, as though they are just another mirage frequent seen in these desert regions.
Oman’s affinity to Iran also stems from religion. Most Omanis belong to a form of Islam called Ibadi after its founder Abd Allah ibn Ibad, which is separate from Shiism and “orthodox” Sunnism, although closer to the former and to Yemeni Houthi Zaydism.
Religion too sets the sultan and the majority of Omanis (only 25 percent are Sunnis) at odds with the strictly Sunni religious Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources report that the UAE-Abu Dhabi ruler therefore chose to expand undercover operations against his rivals in Oman, spying also on its army and security services. His agents came back with a report that Sayyid Haitham has the succession in the bag.
As the coming man, the Abu Dhabi-UAE ruler will greet his Omani visitor with an olive branch and an offer to bury the hatchet over Yemen – or at least lay down ground rules for managing their differences.
Sayyid Haitham‘s claim to the throne in Muscat is supported by solid credentials: Before his current post, he served as Undersecretary for Political Affairs at the Foreign Ministry (1986-1994) moving up to Secretary General. He is a member of the Abu Said dynasty which has ruled Oman for 14 generations.
Its customs may seem odd in the present day. Sultan Qaboos, for instance, is reputed to have placed the name of his successor in a sealed envelope hidden in his palace, and deposited a second envelope in a different royal palace in the southern city of Salalah, in case the first one is lost.
They are to be opened only if the family council convened after his death is unable to agree on a candidate for the succession.
However, these once sacrosanct customs of obedience to elders committed to the old tribal ways are fast peeling away in the Gulf region like other parts of the world. The tendency in recent years is increasingly to bring young blood to the top echelons of power, as in Qatar, Abu Dhabi and even in the hidebound House of Saud. The Sultanate of Oman may yet hold surprises.