By Lisa Barrington and Nayera Abdallah
DUBAI, Jan 11 (Reuters) – Oman’s 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 his cousin Haitham bin Tariq al-Said was announced successor in a smooth transition.
With his death, the region loses a trusted and seasoned leader who managed to balance ties between two neighbours locked in a regional struggle, Saudi Arabia to the west and Iran to the north, as well as the United States. It was not clear how Oman’s role as mediator would continue as a successor establishes himself.
Oman declared three days of official mourning with flags to be flown at half-mast for 40 days for the Western-backed Qaboos, 79, who ruled since taking over in a bloodless coup in 1970 with the help of former colonial power Britain.
State television broadcast images of the funeral procession driving down Sultan Qaboos street in the capital Muscat amid tight security as Omanis thronged the palm tree-lined road, some reaching out their hands and others taking pictures.
The casket, draped in the Omani flag, was then carried into Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque where hundreds of people joined prayers inside. The new sultan stood in front facing the casket, with the traditional curved dagger, or khanjar, strapped to his waist. Qaboos was later buried in a family cemetery.
Omanis took to social media to mourn the death of a ruler who had made regular tours of the nation to speak to citizens, often driving his own four-wheel drive in the convoys.
“The first words I heard from my weeping mother after news of the great Sultan Qaboos’ death was: The father of orphans, of the poor, of the downtrodden, of all of us, has died,” Twitter user Abdullah bin Hamad al-Harthi wrote.
“Our minds cannot comprehend his absence,” another Twitter user who gave her name as Sheikha said.
State media did not give a cause of death, but Qaboos had been unwell for years and underwent treatment in Belgium last month.
SECRET LETTER OPENED
Qaboos had no children and had not publicly appointed a successor. A 1996 statute says the ruling family must choose a successor within three days of the throne becoming vacant.
Haitham bin Tariq was chosen by a ruling family council that convened on Saturday. It opened a sealed envelop in which Qaboos had secretly written his recommendation in case the family could not agree, and opted to follow his “wise” guidance.
The new sultan had served as minister of national heritage and culture and had been appointed in 2013 by Qaboos to chair the main committee responsible for Oman’s development.
“The swift appointment of a successor is positive as the lack of clarity was a key economic uncertainty,” said Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank chief economist Monica Malik.
Haitham takes power as domestic challenges loom large, from strained state finances to high unemployment in the indebted oil producer, and at a time of heightened tension between Iran and the United States and U.S. ally Saudi Arabia.
“The wildcard is whether any of Oman’s neighbours might try to pressure the new sultan as he settles into power,” Kristian Coates Ulrichsen of Texas-based Rice University’s Baker Institute told Reuters.
Oman, whose bonds are rated junk by all three major rating agencies, plans to raise over $5 billion in local and foreign debt this year to partly cover its deficit.
Any successor may initially hesitate to push through austerity measures so as to win over Omanis, Capital Economics’ Jason Tuvey said in a note this month.
Condolences started pouring in for the white-bearded Qaboos.
The leaders of Jordan, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates praised what they described as his wise rule. Former U.S. President George W. Bush said in a statement that Qaboos had been a stable force in the Middle East.
Oman maintains friendly ties with Washington and Tehran and helped mediate secret U.S.-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 of 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.”
(Reporting by Lisa Barrington, Alexander Cornwell, Davide Barbuscia and Tuqa Khalid in Dubai, Nayera Abdallah and Omar Fahmy in Cairo and Steve Holland in Washington; Writing Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Shri Navaratnam and Jane Merriman)