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Flush with cash resulting from high crude oil prices, Oman continued to make slow progress toward economic reforms aimed at privatization, diversification, and attracting foreign investment. Economists continued to express concern over Oman's overwhelming dependence on oil revenue and the slow pace of reform, but the incentive to reform tends to wane as oil prices increase.
Great Britain played a protective role in Oman between 1798 and 1951, when it formally recognized the sultanate's independence. Sultan Qabus took power in 1970 by overthrowing his father in a palace coup. A five-year rebellion by left-wing guerrillas opposed to the sultan's regime was crushed in 1975 with military assistance from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iran, and Pakistan. Since a formal ceasefire in 1976, the sultan, who rules by decree on the advice of a council of ministers, has faced little opposition.
In 1991, Sultan Qabus established a 59-seat Majlis al-Shura, or consultative council, selecting members from lists of nominees proposed by the country's 59 provinces. Membership was expanded to 80 seats in 1994 and to 82 in 1997. The council may comment or make recommendations on proposed government legislation, and particularly economic policy, but it has no legislative power. In December 1997, the sultan appointed 41 members, including four women, to the new Majlis al-Dawla, or council of state. This council's functions and responsibilities are unclear. Together, the two bodies constitute the Majlis Oman, or council of Oman.
The government revised election procedures for the Majlis al-Shura prior to the July 2000 elections in order to overcome unspecified "irregularities" in prior elections. Changes included direct registration of candidates with provincial governors rather than with tribal leaders and an increase in the number of Omanis allowed to vote from 50,000 to 175,000. In addition, those elected would automatically take their seats; in the past, the electorate voted for twice the number of candidates as council seats and the government chose the council from among those candidates. Voter registration was low, however, with only 115,000 eligible voters registered, and the number of candidates dropped to around 600, about 17 percent fewer than in the 1997 polls. Electoral apathy was attributed to concerns over job security-nominees must leave their jobs if elected-tribal loyalty, and the council's lack of authority.
Held in high esteem by his citizens, the sultan has transformed Oman from an impoverished country to one with modern physical and financial infrastructure and social services, public utilities, health, and education on par with Western countries. Annual income per Omani is around $10,000.
However, given the volatility of oil prices, particularly in the past decade, economists stress the need for economic liberalization, including regulatory reform, designed to attract foreign investment and develop non-oil sectors of the economy. Oman has already removed many restrictions on foreign ownership and reduced the tax burden on foreign investors. In July 2001, the government announced a 30-year tax break for investors in a new free zone in a southern port city. In August, it announced that foreign investors would be invited into the mining sector by the end of the year. In 2000, Oman formalized its full membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO) as a developing nation. This classification extends the transition time for compliance with WTO rules. Natural gas, manufacturing, ports, and telecommunications have emerged as fledgling industries, and the government has proposed privatizing water and sanitation, cement, hotels, and airport services and maintenance. Still, oil continues to account for 80 percent of export earnings and 40 percent of gross domestic product. Analysts worry about the social consequences of rapid population growth, which so far is unmatched by similar growth in the job market, and about the reluctance of private firms to hire Omani nationals, who would require better pay than foreigners.
Omanis cannot change their government democratically. The sultan has absolute power and rules by decree. The Majlis election in 2000 was somewhat fairer than past elections, although the government still chooses who among Omanis may vote. There are no political parties or other formal democratic institutions. Citizens may petition the government indirectly through their local governors to redress grievances, or may appeal directly to the sultan during his annual three-week tour of the country. Succession may be a problematic issue for Oman, the only Gulf state without an heir apparent. Qabus has no offspring and has not groomed an heir.
The Basic Law, Oman's first de facto written constitution, was promulgated by Sultan Qabus in 1996. In theory, it provides for an independent judiciary, due process, freedom of the press and of assembly, and prohibitions against discrimination on the basis of sex, ethnicity, race, religion, or social class. In reality, many of the laws and regulations required to implement these provisions have not been enacted.
The judiciary is subordinate to the sultan, who appoints all judges and has the final say on all rulings. Magistrate courts handle misdemeanors and criminal cases, and Sharia (Islamic law) courts handle personal status cases involving divorce and inheritance. A state security court handles matters of national security, and criminal cases as deemed necessary by the government. Security court defendants may not have counsel present and proceedings are not made public. The criminal code does not outline due process rights, though defendants are presumed innocent and do in fact enjoy some procedural safeguards. There are no jury trials; a single judge tries misdemeanors; a panel of three judges tries felonies and security offenses. Defendants in national security or serious felony trials may not appeal. Oman introduced the death penalty for drug smuggling and production in 1999.
Police are not required to obtain warrants prior to making arrests and do not always respect legal procedures for pretrial detention. Security forces reportedly abuse detainees, but the practice is not widespread.
Criticism of the sultan is prohibited, although authorities do tolerate criticism of government officials and policies. The 1984 Press and Publication Law provides for censorship of all domestic and imported publications. However, journalists generally censor themselves to avoid harassment. Radio and television are government controlled and offer only official views. Satellite dishes are widely available, giving citizens access to foreign broadcasts including Al-Jazeera, a popular Qatar-based television channel that provides lively political debate and uncensored interviews with regional opposition activists. Uncensored Internet access is available to citizens and foreigners; there were reportedly 50,000 Omanis online in 2000.
All public gatherings must be government approved, though this rule is not always strictly enforced. Omanis rarely stage protests, but students and others have demonstrated peacefully in solidarity with Palestinians during clashes between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. All associations must be registered with the government, and independent political groups and human rights organizations do not exist.
Islam is the state religion. Most Omanis are Ibadhi or Sunni Muslim, but there is a Shiite minority as well as small communities of Hindu and Christian citizens. Mosque sermons are monitored by the government for political content. Omani children must attend schools that provide instruction in Islam. Noncitizens, who are mainly immigrant workers from South Asia, are free to worship at churches and temples, some of which are built on land donated by the sultan. Non-Muslims may not proselytize Muslims, and non-Muslim groups may not publish religious material in the country. According to the U.S. State Department, relations between religious communities are amicable and religious discrimination is not a problem.
Women enjoy political rights and important positions in commerce, industry, and the professions. According to the ministry of education, nearly 90 percent of girls eligible for elementary school enroll and roughly half the students at Sultan Qabus University are women. Women make up some 20 percent of civil servants and hold senior management posts in more than half of the top ten trading families in Oman. Women were allowed to vote and to stand in Shura council elections in 1994. However, traditional social pressures keep many women from taking part in public life, and discrimination is pervasive. Sharia favors men in matters of family-related law such as inheritance, and a woman must have the permission of a male relative to travel abroad. Female genital mutilation is practiced in some rural areas.
There are no trade unions and no provisions for them under law. Employers of more than 50 workers must form a body of labor and management representatives to discuss working conditions. These committees may not negotiate wages. Strikes are illegal and do not occur. Foreign workers constitute at least 50 percent of the workforce and some 80 percent of the modern-sector workforce. Oman has begun a campaign to replace foreign workers with nationals. In April 2001, authorities arrested more than 100 illegal immigrants and announced an amnesty for expatriates who have overstayed their visas. The amnesty allows illegal residents to leave Oman after paying a $65 fine at the labor ministry, rather than the traditional penalty of about $26 per day. The government has set 2003 as the target by which all government positions should be held by Omanis. Child labor is not widespread.