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Oman names culture minister as successor to Sultan Qaboos

January 11, 2020 GMT
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In this Nov. 5, 2016, photo, Oman's new sultan, Haitham bin Tariq Al Said, is seen while welcoming Britain's Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall at Bait Al Noor church in Muscat, Oman. Oman named Haitham bin Tariq Al Said as the country's new sultan on Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili, File)
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In this Nov. 5, 2016, photo, Oman's new sultan, Haitham bin Tariq Al Said, is seen while welcoming Britain's Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall at Bait Al Noor church in Muscat, Oman. Oman named Haitham bin Tariq Al Said as the country's new sultan on Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili, File)

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 the 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 I ran and the U.S.

Oman is a close ally of Washington and viewed as a valuable regional player.

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, the sultan 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.

He previously spent 16 years in various roles with the foreign ministry. He also served 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 after Qaboos’ burial.

The country’s Defense Council, in the presence of the Royal Family Council, was shown opening 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.

The quick announcement of a successor and the unsealing of the letter suggest the ruling family wanted to quickly name a successor. 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 before his burial. 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.

Following his burial, state TV played recitation from the Quran and then broadcast the unsealing of the letter by the Defense Council and the subsequent inauguration of Sultan Haitham at a palace in Muscat.

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.

Oman’s delicate foreign policy balancing act is expected to remain unchanged under the new sultan, according to analysts.

Sultan Qaboos shaped Oman’s policy of non-interference, refusing to join the Saudi-led coalition at war in Yemen and keeping the country’s border with Yemen open throughout the conflict. He also did not join a Saudi and Emirati-led boycott of neighboring Qatar, and has maintained relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Last year, 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.

A top diplomat in the United Arab Emirates described Qaboos as a “wise and inspiring leader” and extended his country’s sincere condolences to the people of Oman. The UAE also announced three days of mourning.

“Today we lost a historic and renaissance figure of high class with the death of Sultan Qaboos,” UAE’s Minister of State or Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash wrote on Twitter.

In the United States, former President George W. Bush issued a statement saying that he and former first lady Laura Bush are saddened by the sultan’s death.

“He 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.

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Associated Press writer Jon Gambrell contributed from Dubai.