DUBAI • 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. His cousin Haitham bin Tariq al-Said was named as his successor in a smooth transition.
With his death, the region loses a trusted and seasoned leader, seen as the father of modern Oman, who balanced 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.
In a televised speech, Sultan Haitham promised to uphold Muscat's policy of peaceful coexistence and friendly relations with all nations while further developing Oman. "We will continue to assist in resolving disputes peacefully," he said.
Oman 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, or join a Saudi-led military coalition that intervened in Yemen.
Oman and fellow Gulf states declared three days of official mourning with flags to be flown at half-mast for the Western-backed Sultan Qaboos, 79, who ruled since taking over in a bloodless coup in 1970 with the help of former colonial power Britain.
His funeral procession passed along Muscat's main road amid tight security as Omanis thronged the palm tree-lined route, some reaching out their hands and others taking pictures.
The casket, draped in the Omani flag, was carried into Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, where hundreds joined prayers inside.
Sultan Haitham stood facing the casket, with the traditional curved dagger, or khanjar, strapped to his waist.
Sultan 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 country 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.
State media did not give a cause of death. The ruler had been unwell for years and underwent treatment in Belgium last month.
Sultan 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. A family council convened yesterday and chose Sultan Haitham after opening a sealed envelop in which Sultan Qaboos had secretly written his recommendation in case the family could not agree, opting to follow his "wise" guidance, state media said.
Born in 1954, Sultan Haitham, who studied at Oxford, had served as minister of culture and as foreign ministry undersecretary. He was appointed in 2013 to chair Oman's development committee.
"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.
Sultan 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 Teheran and Washington and US ally Saudi Arabia.
"The wildcard is whether any of Oman's neighbours might try to pressure the new sultan as he settles into power," said Dr Kristian Coates Ulrichsen of Texas-based Rice University's Baker Institute.
Oman, whose bonds are rated junk by all three major rating agencies, plans to raise more than US$5 billion (S$6.8 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.