BEIRUT — The Persian Gulf nation of Oman named a new leader on Saturday, an Oxford-educated veteran of public service who pledged to continue his predecessor’s quiet diplomacy between global foes.
The new leader, Haitham bin Tariq Al Said, succeeds Sultan Qaboos, a towering figure who ruled Oman for nearly 50 years. He oversaw its development and pioneered a foreign policy based on good relations with a range of countries, including Saudi Arabia, Israel, the United States and Iran.
Qaboos’ death was announced earlier Saturday. He was 79.
The peaceful transition of power in Oman took place amid heightened tensions between the United States and Iran, which has threatened to ignite a new war in the Middle East.
Haitham, 65, has had a long career in public life, working in the foreign ministry, assisting with programs aimed at diversifying the country’s economy away from oil, and most recently serving as culture minister. He is a cousin of the late sultan.
He comes to power as a number of conflicts swirl in the Middle East and as his government faces growing economic stress at home. In an address on Omani state television, Haitham vowed to continue his predecessor’s practice of not interfering in the affairs of other countries while working for peace between them.
“We will continue to assist in resolving disputes peacefully,” he said.
Oman, a country of 4.6 million on the southeastern corner of the Arabian Peninsula, has long served as an island of neutrality in a region rife with sectarian and political conflicts.
While an oil producer, it is less wealthy than other Gulf states such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and has maintained good relations with countries shunned by its Arab neighbors, such as Israel and Iran.
It shares borders with Yemen, where a war involving Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — two of its other neighbors — continues to rage, and it has hosted peace talks with Yemen’s Houthi rebels.
It has long-standing ties to Western nations like Britain and the United States, but also with Iran.
Those links have at times made it a useful friend to the United States, such as when it brokered the release of three American hikers jailed in Iran in 2011. A few years later, it hosted covert talks between the United States and Iran that paved the way for an international agreement over Iran’s nuclear program.
Michael Stephens, a research fellow for the Middle East at the Royal United Services Institute, said he expected the new sultan to largely stick with his predecessor’s foreign policy to keep the country safe.
“Oman is in this mixing bowl where they can’t really lean either way because of their historical relationships and their geographic position,” he said. “Oman survives by being quiet, not by being noisy, and I don’t see why he would tear up that playbook.”
The new sultan’s greatest challenges could be at home, where economic stagnation combined with low oil prices have led to large government deficits and rising unemployment among the country’s large youth population.
Haitham has helped lead efforts to diversify Oman’s economy, though with limited success. Experts see him continuing that effort.
“Sultan Qaboos created a modern economy from scratch. Sultan Haitham will now need to reform that economy in order to ‘right the ship,’” said Elana DeLozier, a research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“Oman suffers from significant economic challenges, and these can foster social problems if left unresolved,” she added. “The economy will be the primary challenge domestically for the new sultan in the near term.”
Qaboos had no children and, despite nearly five decades in power, never publicly named or groomed a successor. That led to concern that his death could unleash a messy transition or even a power struggle between members of the Al Said dynasty, which has ruled Oman since 1744 and once stretched as far as Zanzibar.
But there were no hints of any discord on Saturday, when the handover proceeded as planned, with much of the process aired live on state television.
After tens of thousands of Omanis turned out for Qaboos’ funeral, a family council convened to choose his successor. Under Omani law, if the council did not agree in a few days, it had to open a letter with Qaboos’ choice, which was written before his death.
But the council skipped directly to that step on Saturday, opening the envelope to find Haitham’s name.
Some diplomats and analysts who work on Persian Gulf matters assumed that the process had been worked out by the family behind the scenes beforehand, with some even suggesting that the sultan’s death had been kept secret for days until the succession plan was in place.
But the swift transition to Haitham appeared to lay to rest concerns about a tricky transition.
Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, who studies Gulf politics at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, said Saturday’s transition sent a message of continuity both to Omanis and to other countries that may have hoped the new sultan would adopt policies more to their liking.
While a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council, a grouping of Arab monarchies, Oman has often charted its own course. When Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates intervened against the Houthi rebels in Yemen’s war, Oman stayed out. Oman also declined to join a Saudi- and Emirati-led boycott of Qatar.
Haitham was educated at Oxford before returning to Oman to hold a number of positions under the previous sultan. He served in top jobs at the foreign ministry, sometimes chaired Cabinet meetings and was appointed in 2013 as the head of a national development committee.
As he took the reins of power, condolence messages streamed in for Qaboos from across the globe, including from parties locked in struggles against each other, reflecting Oman’s emphasis on nonalignment.
Saudi Arabia lauded him for modernizing his country, while the Houthi rebels, who are fighting Saudi Arabia in Yemen’s war, praised his efforts to end the conflict.
Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif of Iran wrote on Twitter that Qaboos’ death was a loss for the region and encouraged its new leader to take “inspiration from the past.”
From the United States, former President George W. Bush issued a statement calling Qaboos “a stable force in the Middle East and a strong U.S. ally.”