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Despite recent limited steps to introduce political reform in Oman, ruling authority in 2005 remained heavily concentrated in the hands of Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said. In the spring, the government convicted individuals who were allegedly plotting to overthrow the government; the sultan pardoned these individuals later in the year.
Except for a brief period of Persian rule, Oman has been an independent nation since Sultan bin Seif's expulsion of the Portuguese in 1650. After the expulsion, which ended more than a century of Portuguese involvement in certain regions of Oman, 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 in 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.
Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said 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, government, and economy.
In 1991, Qaboos established the 59-seat (expanded to 83 seats in 1993) 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 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. Oil dominates Oman's economy, generating around 75 percent of the government's revenues. As Oman's oil fields are relatively small and aging, the country has sought to diversify its economic base in recent years. In 1995, Qaboos spearheaded an effort to liberalize the economy, reduce its dependence on oil exports, and attract international investments. In preparation for Oman's accession to the World Trade Organization in 2000, 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.
Political reform lags behind economic reform, with Qaboos maintaining a strong grip on political authority. 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.
Citizens of Oman cannot change their government demo-cratically. Citizens can express their views only in a very limited way, by electing members to the 83-member Consultative Council, which has no legislative powers and may only recommend changes to new laws. The Consultative Council is part of a bicameral body known as the Council of Oman; the other part, the 59-member State Council, or Majlis al-Dawla, 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 28 out of 159 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedom of expression and democratic debate are limited in Oman, with laws prohibiting criticism of the sultan. Article 61 of the Omani Press Law states that "every person who sends a message via a means of communication that is contrary to the government system and public morals or that is knowingly untrue & shall be punished by a prison sentence of not more than one year and a fine of not more than 1,000 riyals."
In 2004, Oman promulgated the Private Radio and Television Companies Law, which established regulations for setting up private radio and television companies, a first for Oman. In October 2005, Oman announced the licensing of four private television and radio stations. 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. In July, government authorities arrested Abdullah al-Riyami, a journalist and poet, for speaking out against the government. Al-Riyami experienced harassment and intimidation from government authorities after publishing comments critical of the Omani government.
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 the government has the authority to prevent organized public meetings without any appeal process. In May, Omani police used excessive force to disband demonstrators peacefully protesting the conviction of 31 'Ibadis on charges of plotting a coup.
Workers do not have the right to organize unions, but they can select a representative committee to voice their demands and represent their interests. 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. Oman's 2003 labor law defines employment conditions for some citizens and foreign workers but does not apply to domestic servants, temporary workers, and those whose work contracts are for less than three months.
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. Many of the civil liberties guarantees expressed in the basic law have not been implemented.
According to the law, arbitrary arrest and detention are prohibited. In practice, the police are not required to obtain an arrest warrant in advance. Government authorities must obtain court orders to hold suspects in pretrial detention, but the police and security services do not regularly follow these procedures. Prisons are not accessible to independent monitors, but former prisoners report crowded cells.
The Omani penal code contains broad and vague provisions for offenses against national security. These charges are prosecuted before the State Security Court, which usually holds proceedings closed to the public. In January, Omani security forces detained a number of individuals suspected of forming an organization aimed at destabilizing the country's national security. In the spring, courts convicted 31 Omanis of the 'Ibadi faith on charges of plotting to overthrow the government. In June, however, Sultan Qaboos pardoned the convicted plotters and gave amnesty to 24 demonstrators.
Omani law does not protect noncitizens from discrimination. In addition, 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. Oman's personal status law, based on Sharia, favors the rights of men over those of women in marriage, divorce, inheritance, and child custody. 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, Qaboos appointed three women as government ministers in 2004, a first for Oman. Raweyah el-Bouseidi became the first female 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. In September 2005, Sultan Qaboos appointed Hanina bint Sultan bin Ahmad al-Maghiri as the first women to serve as ambassador to the United States.