Freedom in the World
You are here
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
In January 2006, the United States and Oman signed a bilateral free-trade agreement. To win U.S. congressional approval for this treaty, the Omani government implemented a series of labor reforms including allowing workers to organize and engage in peaceful strikes. The U.S. Congress approved the free-trade agreement in September. Oman was also in the process of preparing for its forthcoming Majlis al-Shura (Consultative Council) elections in the fall of 2007.
Except for a brief period of Persian rule, Oman has been an independent state 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 inland regions of the country. In 1964, a group of separatists supported by Communist governments, including that of the neighboring 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 military assistance from its traditional ally, Britain, 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 the first elections was not granted to all citizens; only a limited number of citizens selected by tribal leaders were allowed to participate. 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, spearheaded by Qaboos in 1995, to reform Oman’s oil-dependent economy. Oil generates around 75 percent of state revenues, but the country’s relatively small oil fields are aging. The sultan sought to liberalize and diversify the economy, and attract international investments. In preparation for Oman’s accession to the World Trade Organization in 2000, the government 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 boosting Omani employment in governmental and nongovernmental sectors.
Political reform lags behind economic reform, with Qaboos maintaining a strong grip on the state. In October 2003, Oman held landmark elections for the Consultative Council. Though the powers of the council remain limited, the balloting marked the first time that Oman gave the right to vote to all adult citizens, both men and women.
In January 2006, Oman and the United States signed a bilateral free-trade agreement. Trade between the two countries in 2005 amounted to $1 billion, and the treaty was designed in part to help diversify Oman’s economy and reduce its dependence on oil revenues. Addressing objections in the U.S. Congress, Oman had amended its labor laws in 2003 to bring them into accordance with International Labor Organization standards and facilitate approval for the treaty. Further reforms were undertaken in 2006, particularly in the months leading up to Congress’s final nod of approval in September. Among other measures, the Omani government enacted legislation that specifically safeguarded workers’ rights to bargain collectively and mount strikes, although they were required to give employers a minimum of three weeks’ warning before initiating such job actions. The new laws protected union activity on other fronts as well, allowing multiple unions to organize workers within a single company, and barring employers from firing workers for union links. Additional provisions were designed to combat worker exploitation by increasing penalties and enforcement mechanisms pertaining to coerced labor and the employment of children.
Oman is not an electoral democracy. 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, who has absolute power and issues laws by decree. The sultan 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.
Oman’s next election cycle commences in the fall of 2007. In the last election, in October 2003, complaints surfaced that the government did not do enough to promote voter participation, as only 30 percent of the qualified population cast ballots. A full year before the 2007 voting, the government and relevant ministries were already trying to promote greater awareness among the electorate.
Article 34 of the basic law, the country’s constitution, 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 exist for citizens to petition the government through local government officials, 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.
Corruption was not perceived to be a serious problem in Oman, and few cases of official graft were reported during 2006. However, a number of public officials received prison sentences in 2005 for corruption and bribery offenses, including a member of the State Council. According to the U.S. State Department’s 2006 human rights report, such successful prosecutions added to the public perception that corruption was under control in the country. The legal framework does not include specific freedom of information provisions. Oman was ranked 39 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 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,” or about $2,600.
In 2004, Oman promulgated the Private Radio and Television Companies Law, which established regulations for setting up private broadcast media outlets, a first for the country. In October 2005, the authorities announced the licensing of four private television and radio stations. Oman’s government permits private print publications, but many of these 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 material covering politically sensitive topics.
Article 32 of the basic law provides for the right to peaceful assembly within the limits of the law. All public gatherings require official permission, and the government has the authority to prevent organized public meetings without any appeal process.
The basic law allows the formation of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), but civic and associational life remains quite limited in Oman. The government has not permitted the establishment of independent human rights organizations, and generally uses the registration and licensing process to block the formation of groups that are seen as a threat to stability. Those groups that are approved must operate within circumscribed fields of activity.
Oman’s 2003 labor law, enacted during negotiations on the U.S. free-trade agreement, allowed workers to select a representative committee to voice their demands and represent their interests, but prevented them from organizing unions. Included in the decree was the removal of a previous prohibition on strikes. Employers using child labor face increased penalties, including prison terms, under the law. Complaints related to labor and working conditions were managed by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor and mediated by the Labor Welfare Board. The 2003 labor law defined employment conditions for some citizens and foreign workers but did not apply to domestic servants, temporary workers, and those whose work contracts were for less than three months. The labor reforms enacted in 2006 included a number of improvements on the 2003 measures, including protections for union activity, collective bargaining, and strikes. However, legal provisions covering migrant workers remain inadequate, and domestic servants are particularly vulnerable to abuse.
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; former prisoners report overcrowding.
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 that are closed to the public.
Omani law does not protect noncitizens from discrimination. In addition, some citizens of African origin have reported employment discrimination. The government in November 2006 established rules barring employers from withholding letters that released foreign workers from their contracts. Foreign workers risked deportation if they abandoned their contracts without such documents, meaning employers could effectively keep workers from switching jobs and hold them in a relationship that was open to exploitation.
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. Oman ratified the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, in July 2005. 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. 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, Qaboos appointed Hanina bint Sultan bin Ahmad al-Maghiri as the first woman to serve as ambassador to the United States.