Oman | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2003

2003 Scores


Not Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Oman continues to make steady progress in diversifying its economy and attracting foreign investment, preparing for the day when its modest oil reserves run out. The political reform process took a minor leap forward with the announcement that elections to the Consultative Council next year will be held on the basis of universal suffrage.

Considered to be the oldest independent state in the Arab world, Oman has existed as a sovereign political entity since 1650, when followers of the Ibadi sect of Islam led by Sultan bin Seif expelled the Portuguese from the eastern tip of the Arabian peninsula. The present al-Busaid dynasty came to power in 1749. By the mid-nineteenth century, an Omani commercial empire stretched from trading posts on the Indian subcontinent to east Africa. As a result of British encroachments and the decline of the slave trade, Oman lost its overseas possessions and entered a period of decline and debt.

During the reign of Sultan Said bin Taimur, which began in 1932, Oman remained astonishingly backward, diplomatically isolated (refusing to join either the United Nations or the Arab League), and torn by a Soviet-backed rebellion in the interior. By 1970, when Said was overthrown by his son, Qaboos, there were only about 1,000 automobiles and 10 kilometers of asphalt road in the entire country. Drawing upon modest oil revenues, Sultan Qaboos rapidly modernized Oman's semi-feudal economy, repealed his father's oppressive social restrictions, and ended the country's diplomatic isolation. He regained control of the country's interior in 1975, inaugurating an era of remarkable civil peace, economic prosperity and little political opposition.

In 1991, as authoritarian governments throughout eastern Europe and parts of the third world were falling by the wayside, Qaboos established the Consultative Council (Majlis al-Shura), whose members were largely appointed. The 1996 basic charter transformed the council into an 82-member elected body, but it was given no legislative powers and the quasi-electoral system put in place the following year was not binding. The charter also banned discrimination on the basis of sex, ethnicity, religion, and social class, and provided for an independent judiciary, due process protections, and freedom of expression and assembly, but many of these provisions have not been enacted.

While the political reform process has been gradual and half-hearted, economic reform has been pursued with vigor. Oil exports, which account for 80 percent of export earnings and 40 percent of gross domestic product, have preserved stability for the last quarter-century, but Oman's reserves will very likely run out within 20 years. Given the country's high, 3.8 percent annual rate of population growth, developing a diversified economy capable of employing record numbers of new job seekers is imperative. In 1995, Qaboos organized an international conference, called "Economic Vision 2020," that outlined an ambitious program of economic liberalization to attract international investment and develop non-oil sectors of the economy. The government lifted restrictions on majority foreign ownership and reduced the tax burden on foreign investors. In 2000, Oman formalized its full membership in the World Trade Organization as a developing nation. 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. In June 2002, the Washington-based Cato Institute ranked Oman first in the Arab world in its annual report on economic freedom.

The government has also introduced measures to "Omanize" the mostly foreign workforce. The government has pledged that all governmental positions will be held by Omanis by 2003 and set target quotas for domestic employment in each sector of the economy. The sultan has encouraged citizens to start their own businesses, offering subsidized loans to cover start-up costs.

In November 2002, the government announced that all Omani citizens over the age of 21 will be allowed to vote in the 2003 Consultative Council elections. In previous elections, only a limited number of citizens selected by tribal leaders were allowed to vote. Moreover, the sultan gave up the right to arbitrarily approve or reject candidates after the elections.

Although the reforms are a step forward for Oman, many in the country and abroad remain worried about the country's political future. While Qaboos is regarded by most as a capable and benevolent leader, he has no sons, which leaves Oman without an heir apparent. As the sultan advances in age, this political question mark may prove to be an impediment in attracting international investment.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Omanis cannot change their government democratically. The sultan has absolute power and rules by decree. There are no formal democratic institutions, and political parties are illegal. 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.

While police are not required to obtain warrants prior to making arrests and do not always respect legal procedures for pretrial detention, arbitrary arrests and detentions are rare. Security forces have reportedly abused detainees in the past, but the practice was not widespread.

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, while Sharia (Islamic law) courts handle personal status cases involving divorce and inheritance. A state security court handles criminal cases as deemed necessary by the government. Security court defendants may not have counsel present and proceedings are not made public. Defendants in national security or serious felony trials may not appeal.

Freedom of expression is very limited. All broadcast media are government owned and offer only official views, though satellite dishes are widely available, which gives citizens access to foreign broadcasts. While there are many privately owned print publications, the government subsidizes their operating costs, discouraging critical reporting on most major domestic issues. Laws prohibit criticism of the sultan and provide for censorship of all domestic and imported publications, though journalists normally practice self-censorship.

All public gatherings must be government approved, though this rule is not strictly enforced. Several pro-Palestinian demonstrations were held peacefully in 2002. All associations must be registered with the government, and independent political groups and human rights organizations do not exist.

There are no labor or trade unions in Oman, and strikes are illegal. The government sets guidelines for private sector wages and employment conditions. Complaints about working conditions can be referred to the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor, and the government Labor Welfare Board arbitrates disputes.

Islam is the state religion. Most Omanis are Ibadi or Sunni Muslims, but there is a small Shi'a minority, as well as largely foreign Christian and Hindu communities. All are allowed to worship freely, though mosque sermons are monitored by the government for political content.

Women enjoy equal political rights, but suffer from legal and social discrimination.

Sharia courts favor men in inheritance and divorce cases, and a woman must have the permission of a male relative to travel abroad. Although traditional social pressures keep many women from working or taking part in public life, some have come to occupy important positions in commerce, industry, and other sectors. Women hold around 30 percent of civil service positions and enjoy equal educational opportunities. Female genital mutilation is practiced in some rural areas.