by Khaled Orabi with Dana Moukhallati in Dubai
In a region long dominated by aging emirs and kings, the rise of a fresh crop of crown princes is stirring excitement among youthful populations in the Gulf states.
Their roles are linked to ambitious reform programmes designed to wean the countries off their dependence on oil and create diversified economies with more employment opportunities.
“There is a real appetite for 30-something leadership in several countries, including Oman’s neighbours Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates,” Elana DeLozier, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told AFP.
“Even if that person is not the top leader, having youth in senior positions brings hope that the desires of the young will be worked into policy.”
Oman’s Dhi Yazan bin Haitham, a soft-spoken 30-year-old who currently serves as minister of culture, sports and youth, last week became the latest to join their ranks.
He is the first royal in Oman’s modern history to be designated heir apparent, setting a clear succession path after the uncertainty that surrounded Sultan Qaboos’ death at the age of 79 with no appointed heir.
– New visions –
The transformation inside Gulf monarchies is best exemplified by Saudi Arabia, which since the middle of the last century has been ruled in turn by the sons of founder King Abdulaziz.
Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS, the 33-year-old regarded as de facto leader since his appointment as crown prince in 2017, has introduced sweeping social and economic reforms that have made him popular among the youth in the ultra-conservative kingdom.
A bitter four-year diplomatic row between Saudi Arabia and Qatar was symbolically put to rest this month with a public embrace between Prince Mohammed and Qatar’s young ruler, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani.
The Qatari emir was handed power by his father at the age of just 33 in 2013, after being groomed to take control of the desert nation that is to host the 2022 World Cup.
In Bahrain, 51-year-old Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa was appointed prime minister last November on the death of his great uncle, who had held the post since independence in 1971.
And in Abu Dhabi, while not a youngster, 59-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, or MBZ, is seen as the most powerful force behind UAE policies.
Dubai’s Crown Prince Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed has turned into a media sensation among young Emiratis with his health campaigns and appetite for extreme sports.
– Learning the ropes –
Many Omanis — especially the younger generation — have welcomed the appointment of the heir, congratulating him on social media platforms.
“They have confidence that he will most likely have plenty of time to learn the ropes given that his father is only in his 60s,” said DeLozier.
Sultan Qaboos transformed the former Arabian Peninsula backwater into a modern nation.
He was succeeded by a cousin, Sultan Haitham bin Tariq Al Said, who was chosen at a meeting of Oman’s royal family during which a sealed letter from Qaboos naming his preference was opened.
While Sultan Haitham has made several changes since he came to power, he has vowed to maintain the sultanate’s policy of neutrality and non-interference.
It remains unclear what his son Dhi Yazan’s duties will entail, and if he will retain his current ministerial duties or occupy a role similar to the other crown princes.
Born in Muscat and educated at Oxford, he joined the foreign ministry in 2013 and served at the Omani embassy in London.
He returned home in August 2020 to join the cabinet at his father’s request.
Like his father, he is known to be an Anglophile, said Bader al-Saif, an assistant professor at Kuwait University and a fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center.
“By choosing his eldest son Dhi Yazan as crown prince, Sultan Haitham has wisely sided with the majority of his people,” Saif tweeted. “Youth represent almost half of Omanis.”
While official media did not name Dhi Yazan as heir, a royal decree issued on January 12 said governance would now be “passed from the sultan to the eldest of his sons, then to the eldest of the latter’s sons, and so on”.
The line of succession in Oman will “thus become predictable, and uncertainty that could lead to unrest will become less likely”, according to a former US ambassador to Oman, Marc Sievers.