For the first time in roughly half a century, Oman is under new direction.
The longest-serving monarch of the Arab world, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, died Friday at the age of 79, ceding the country to his cousin and former culture minister Haitham bin Tariq al-Said. The latter was sworn in as sultan Saturday, assuming the reins of state in a ceremony attended by high-ranking military and government officials.
"The trust in us is great and the responsibilities are great," the new sultan told those assembled for the occasion, according to the state-run Oman News Agency. He focused on maintaining Oman's long-standing role as a neutral party for peace in the troubled region.
"We will follow the same line as the late sultan," he said, according to a translation from The Associated Press, "and the principles that he asserted for the foreign policy of our country, of peaceful coexistence among nations and people, and good neighborly behavior of non-interference in the affairs of others."
The speech ushered in a new and unfamiliar era for the country, which had been governed by just one man since Qaboos overthrew his father in a bloodless palace coup in 1970. Qaboos, who had been educated in the U.K., oversaw something of a revolution in Oman during his reign, guiding the Gulf state in its development from an isolated loner to active member in the Arab League, the United Nations and eventually the World Trade Organization, as well.
Since he took power, Oman has seen a dramatic upswing in its fortunes, increasing its gross domestic product from about $250 million at the start of his reign to a sum better measured in the tens of billions, according to statistics from the World Bank.
In recent years the tiny country — which boasts a population of only 4.6 million people and a land area smaller than Kansas — has played an outsize role in Middle Eastern diplomatic affairs. Nestled on the borders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and war-torn Yemen, and just across the Gulf of Oman from Iran and Pakistan, Oman lately has taken on the role of arbiter and peacekeeper in its tumultuous neighborhood.
The country, which maintains positive relations with both Iran and the U.S., hosted the secret meetings that eventually resulted in the Iran nuclear deal in 2015. And Oman has repeatedly stepped in to facilitate high-stakes negotiations between the two countries — as when Qaboos himself paid half a million each to help secure the release of American prisoners from Iran in 2011.
"We always keep a focus not on the negative, but on the positive," Mohammed bin Awadh al-Hassan, Oman's permanent representative to the U.N., explained to NPR last year. "When you focus on this, opportunities for peace become quite clear."
Lately, though, the septuagenarian absolute monarch had largely withdrawn from the public eye, as he underwent treatment for a long-undisclosed medical condition, believed to have been colon cancer.
The silence from the sultan's palace also raised difficult questions about succession, as the popular leader had only briefly married and produced no obvious heir to the sultanate — though observers commonly included Haitham, 65, on shortlists of potential successors.
That expectation came to fruition upon Qaboos' death. Reuters reports that the late sultan named his successor in a sealed envelope.
In a reflection of the trust and friendship Oman managed to cultivate among its neighbors and others under Qaboos, Haitham was flooded with words of consolation and congratulations from world leaders Saturday.
Among the expressions of grief over Qaboos' death was a statement from the U.S. Embassy in Muscat, Oman's capital, which mourned "his steadfast leadership embodied his sincerity, his generosity, his tolerance, and his deep love for his country."
"We lost one of the world's most important leaders," the embassy wrote in a statement published on Facebook, "an inspiring leader of Oman's rise and development in half a century."