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Despite recent limited steps to introduce political reform, including a new law establishing regulations for setting up private radio and television stations and the appointment of three women as ministers in government, ruling authority in 2004 remained heavily concentrated in the hands of Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said.
Oman has been an independent nation since Sultan bin Seif's expulsion of the Portuguese in 1650, ending more than a century of Portuguese involvement in certain regions of Oman. After the expulsion of the Portuguese, the sultan conquered neighboring territories, building a small empire that included parts of the eastern coast of Africa and the southern Arabian Peninsula.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Oman experienced a period of internal unrest centered mostly on the interior regions of the country. In 1964, a group of separatists supported by Communist governments, such as that of the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen), started a revolt in Oman's Dhofar province. This insurgency was not completely quelled until the mid-1970s, with Oman's government receiving direct military support from its traditional ally, the United Kingdom, as well as from Iran and Jordan.
Qaboos came to power more than 30 years ago, after overthrowing his father, Sultan Said bin Taimur, who had ruled for nearly four decades. The new sultan launched a program to modernize Oman's infrastructure, educational system, governmental structure, and economy.
In 1991, Qaboos established the Consultative Council, or Majlis Al-shura, an appointed body aimed at providing the sultan with a wider range of opinions on ruling the country. The 1996 basic law, promulgated by a royal decree, transformed the Consultative Council into an elected body, but the right to vote in these elections was not granted to all citizens; only a limited number of citizens selected by tribal leaders were allowed to participate in the first elections. The basic law granted certain civil liberties, banned discrimination on the basis of sex, religion, ethnicity, and social class, and clarified the process for royal succession.
This limited political reform in the 1990s was overshadowed by a stronger effort to reform Oman's oil-dependent economy. In 1995, Qaboos spearheaded an effort to liberalize the economy, reduce its dependence on oil exports, and attract international investments. In preparation for its accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO), Oman lifted restrictions on foreign investment and ownership of enterprises in the country. In July 2003, the Ministry of Labor launched a five-year plan aimed at recruiting more Omani people into governmental and nongovernmental sectors. Debate over privatization of government operations in power, water, and telecommunications took place in 2004.
Political reform lags behind economic reform, with Qaboos maintaining a strong grip on political authority in Oman. In October 2003, Oman held the first full election in its history, for its Consultative Council. Though the powers of the Consultative Council remain limited, the election marked the first time that Oman gave the right to vote to all adult citizens, both men and women. In 2004, Oman issued a new law by royal decree establishing regulations for setting up private radio and television stations, a first in Oman's history. Another modest sign of progress was the appointment of three women as ministers in government.
Citizens of Oman do not have the right to elect their country's leaders democratically. Citizens can express their views only in a very limited way, by electing members to the Consultative Council, which has no legislative powers and may only recommend changes to new laws. The Consultative Council is half of a bicameral body known as the Council of Oman; the other half, the 57-member State Council, is appointed by the sultan, currently Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said. The sultan has absolute power and issues laws by decree. He serves as the country's prime minister, heads the ministries of Defense, Foreign Affairs, and Finance, and is the governor of Oman's central bank. Article 34 of the basic law states that citizens have the right to address public authorities on personal matters or on matters related to public affairs in a manner consistent with Omani law. Mechanisms for citizens to petition the government through local government officials exist, and certain citizens are afforded limited opportunities to petition the sultan in direct meetings. Political parties are banned, and no meaningful organized political opposition exists.
Oman was ranked 29 out of 146 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedom of expression and democratic debate are limited in Oman, with laws prohibiting criticism of the sultan. In August, Oman promulgated the Private Radio and Television Companies Law, which established regulations for setting up private radio and television companies, a first for Oman. As with other countries in the Arab world, the number of households with access to satellite television has increased, leading to an expansion in the diversity of sources of information. However, this information is mostly focused on issues in the Middle East region, as opposed to domestic issues in Oman. Oman's government permits private print publications, although many of these publications accept government subsidies and practice self-censorship. Omanis have access to the Internet through the national telecommunications company, and the government censors politically sensitive and pornographic content.
Islam is the state religion, according to the basic law. Non-Muslims have the right to worship, although non-Muslim religious organizations must register with the government and non-Muslims are banned from proselytizing. The Ministry of Awqaf (Religious Charitable Bequests) and Religious Affairs distributes standardized texts for mosque sermons and expects imams to stay within the outlines of these texts. The government restricts academic freedom by preventing the publication of politically sensitive topics.
The basic law allows the formation of nongovernmental organizations, but civic and associational life remains quite limited in Oman. The government has not permitted the establishment of independent human rights organizations. Article 32 of the basic law, the country's constitution, provides for the right to peaceful assembly within the limits of the law. All public gatherings require government permission, and government authorities have the authority to prevent organized public meetings without any appeal process.
Workers do not have the right to organize unions, but they can select a representative committee to voice their demands and represent their interest. In April 2003, the government issued a decree that removed a previous prohibition on strikes. Complaints related to labor and working conditions are managed by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor and mediated by the Labor Welfare Board.
Although the basic law states that the judiciary is independent, it remains subordinate to the sultan and the Ministry of Justice. Sharia (Islamic law) is the source of all legislation, and Sharia courts are responsible for family law matters such as divorce and inheritance. In less populated areas, tribal laws and customs are frequently used to adjudicate disputes. According to the law, arbitrary arrest and detention are prohibited. In practice, the police are not required to obtain an arrest warrant in advance. Many of the civil liberties guarantees expressed in the basic law have not been implemented. Prisons were not accessible to independent monitors, but former prisoners report crowded cells. Government authorities must obtain court orders to hold suspects in pretrial detention, but the police and security services do not regularly follow these procedures.
Some citizens of African origin have reported employment discrimination. Although the basic law prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, women suffer from legal and social discrimination. According to official statistics, women constitute only 10 percent of the total labor force in Oman. Only two women won seats on the Consultative Council in the 2003 national elections. However, Sultan Qaboos appointed three women as government ministers in 2004, a first for Oman. Raweyah el-Bouseidi became the first minister in the history of Oman when she was appointed minister of higher education. Rajihah Bint-Abd-al-Amir became minister of tourism, and Sharifa Bint Khalfan became the minister of social development.