Freedom in the World
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Following parliamentary elections in October 2007, members of the Consultative Council, a body that has no parliamentary or legislative power, began their four-year terms in 2008. In May, the sultan of Oman decreed an electronic transactions law that expanded government supervision of blogs and other websites.
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 replaced an appointed State Consultative Council, established in 1981, with a partially elected Consultative Council (Majlis al-Shura) designed to provide the sultan with a wider range of opinions on ruling the country. A limited number of women gained the right to vote and run as candidates in 1994. The 1996 basic law, promulgated by royal decree, created a bicameral parliament consisting of an appointed Council of State (Majlis al-Dawla) and a wholly elected Consultative Council. 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 2003, the sultan decreed universal suffrage for all Omanis over the age of 21. Parliamentary elections were held that year and again in October 2007. However, political reform has continued to lag behind economic reform, with Qaboos maintaining a strong grip on the state.
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. The Consultative Council is part of a bicameral body known as the Council of Oman. The other chamber, the 59-member State Council, 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.
Of more than 600 candidates who ran in the October 2007 Consultative Council elections, 21 were women. However, for the first time since women were granted the right to participate in 1994, no female candidates were elected.
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 not permitted, 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 41 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 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, the government 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. In May 2008, the sultan issued a decree expanding government oversight and regulation of electronic communications, including communication on personal blogs.
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 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, but civic and associational life remains 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 a 2006 free-trade agreement with the United States, 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.
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 Court Departments within the civil court system 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. The U.S. State Department lists Oman as a Tier 3 country in its 2008 Trafficking in Persons Report, noting that in 2008, “the Ministry of Manpower received 297 grievances from laborers, including some possible trafficking cases; the ministry negotiated all but 12 of these cases out of court. Oman did not report enforcing any criminal penalties against abusive employers.”
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.