Oman’s sultan arrived in Saudi Arabia on Sunday, starting the first visit by an Omani ruler to the kingdom in years, against the backdrop of intensified efforts to end the war in Yemen and the sultanate’s worsening economic woes.
With trumpets blaring, canons firing and fighter jets streaking overhead, Sultan Haitham bin Tariq Al Said landed in Neom, a futuristic desert city planned along the kingdom’s Red Sea coast.
Saudi Arabia’s powerful crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, greeted Sultan Haitham on the tarmac and guided him down a long lavender carpet for meetings with King Salman at the palace, as regional tensions simmer and Oman's government faces growing stress at home.
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The choice of the kingdom as Sultan Haitham’s first foreign destination since taking power last year signals Oman’s respect for the influence of Saudi Arabia, the spiritual anchor of the Sunni Muslim world and the region’s largest economy with vast oil reserves.
It also reflects the states' mutual self-interest, as Saudi Arabia seeks to cool relations with Iran and chart a path out of its costly campaign in Yemen, which has spawned the world’s worst humanitarian crisis and settled into a bloody stalemate. Oman in recent weeks has accelerated its long-standing diplomatic efforts to end the catastrophic conflict, which pits a Saudi-led military coalition against Iran-backed Houthi rebels.
The sultan met Saudi Arabia's King Salman to discuss ways to boost ties, the official Saudi Press Agency reported, without elaborating. Closer relations with Saudi Arabia could become critical as Oman, long prized for its neutrality in the turbulent region, struggles to balance its books and turns to wealthier Gulf neighbors for support.
The two-day visit, in all its royal pomp and pageantry, is rare for an Omani leader. Sultan Haitham ascended the throne after the death of the long-ruling Sultan Qaboosbin Said, whose foreign trips and public appearances grew scarce as he aged.
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The 65-year-old former culture minister's reign has so far spanned the pandemic's fallout and oil price shock. Now, he faces a series a tests: tens of billions of dollars of outstanding debt, a “junk” credit rating and rising youth unemployment, which prompted a rare burst of protests in May in the once-quiet sultanate.
Oman requested technical assistance from the International Monetary Fund, the institution reported last week, to help the government manage its debt, which has ballooned to nearly 83 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.