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Oman held elections for the Consultative Council in October 2007, the second poll in the country’s history to feature universal suffrage for adult citizens. The sultan appointed a new chairman to the council in September, only the second person to hold the post since the body was created in 1991.
Except for a brief period of Persian rule, Oman has been an independent state since a native dynasty expelled the Portuguese from Muscat in 1650. After the expulsion, which ended more than a century of Portuguese involvement in the area, the sultan conquered neighboring territories and built a small empire that included parts of the eastern coast of Africa and the southern Arabian Peninsula. The overseas possessions were gradually lost beginning in the mid-19th century.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Oman experienced a period of civil unrest centered mostly in the interior regions of the country. In 1964, a group of separatists supported by Marxist governments, including that of the neighboring People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen), started a revolt in Oman’s Dhofar province. The insurgency was not completely quelled until the mid-1970s.
Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said seized power in 1970 by 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 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 only a limited number of citizens selected by tribal leaders were allowed to vote 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, spearheaded by Qaboos in 1995, to liberalize and diversify Oman’s oil-dependent economy. 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 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 accelerate economic diversification. To ensure U.S. congressional approval for the treaty, Oman amended its labor laws in 2003 and 2006, bringing them into accordance with International Labor Organization standards.
Political reform has continued to lag behind economic reform, with Qaboos maintaining a strong grip on the state. However, in October 2007, Oman held elections for the Consultative Council, the second poll in the country’s history that featured universal suffrage for adult citizens.
Oman is not an electoral democracy. Citizens elect the 84-member Consultative Council for four-year terms, but the chamber has no legislative powers and can only recommend changes to new laws. In September 2007, the sultan appointed a new chairman to the Council, the first change in leadership since the body was founded in 1991. The chairman answers to the sultan rather than the members of the Council.
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.
In October 2007, Oman held elections for the Consultative Council. Over 600 candidates ran for seats, including 21 women. To counter complaints that it did not do enough to promote voter participation in 2003, the Omani government encouraged public campaigning. Almost 390,000 Omanis signed up to vote. Voter turnout was estimated at 63 percent. Unlike the 2003 vote, in which 2 women won seats, none of the 21 female candidates were elected in 2007.
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 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 is not perceived to be a serious problem in Oman, although a number officials were sentenced for graft in 2005. The legal code does not include freedom of information provisions. Oman was ranked 53 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedom of expression and democratic debate are limited, and criticism of the sultan is prohibited. Article 61 of the 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. The 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 they are banned from proselytizing. Non-Muslim religious organizations must register with the government. 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 on politically sensitive topics.
Article 32 of the basic law provides for the right to peaceful assembly within the limits. 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 remain limited. 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.
Oman’s 2003 labor law, enacted during negotiations on the U.S. free-trade agreement, allowed workers to select a committee to voice their demands and represent their interests but prevented them from organizing unions. Employers using child labor face increased penalties, including prison terms, under the law. Additional labor reforms enacted in 2006 brought a number of improvements, 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. Complaints related to labor and working conditions are managed by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor and mediated by the Labor Welfare Board.
The judiciary is not 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, and former prisoners report overcrowding. The 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. Foreign workers risk deportation if they abandon their contracts without documentation releasing them from their previous employment, meaning employers could effectively keep workers from switching jobs and hold them in a relationship that is 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. The sultan appointed three women as government ministers in 2004.