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In April 2009, Oman sentenced civil aviation official Ali al-Zuwaidy to one month in prison for publishing comments on a popular website that were critical of the government. Separately, the country stripped Omani citizenship from a Yemeni political refugee in May for criticizing the deteriorating political situation in Yemen.
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.
In May 2009, the government stripped Ali Salem al-Beidh, a Yemeni dissident living in exile in the country since 1994, of his Omani citizenship. A past supporter of the secessionist movement in southern Yemen, al-Beidh was punished for issuing a political statement critical of the Yemeni government’s handling of the political crisis in the south.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties:
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.
Under the country’s constitution, 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. However, the legal code does not include freedom of information provisions. Oman was ranked 39 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedom of expression and democratic debate are limited, and criticism of the sultan is prohibited. The 2004 Private Radio and Television Companies Law 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. The sultan issued a decree in 2008 expanding government oversight and regulation of electronic communications, including communication on personal blogs. In April 2009, Ali al-Zuwaidy, a civil aviation official, was sentenced to one month in prison and fined $520 for leaking a government document on a popular website. Al-Zuwaidy had posted a cabinet directive calling for a popular radio program to cease its anti-government criticism. He served 11 days of the sentence, with the remainder suspended.
Islam is the state religion. 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.
The right to peaceful assembly within limits is provided for by the basic law. However, 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 allows workers to select a committee to voice their demands and represent their interests but prevents them from organizing unions. 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. Employers using child labor face increased penalties, including prison terms, under the law.
The judiciary is not independent and 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.
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. For the first time since women were granted the right to participate in 1994, no female candidates were elected in the October 2007 Consultative Council elections.
While Oman remains a destination and transit country for trafficking in women and men, a new antitrafficking law went into effect in December 2008. The government tried its first case under the new law in March 2009, convicting 11 men of bringing 13 women into the country for prostitution. The government also provided shelter for the women involved in the case. In April, the newly formed National Committee for Combating Trafficking in Persons convened its first meeting.