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Thousands of Omanis demonstrated across the country in 2011, demanding economic and political reform. Several protests turned violent, leading to the detention of hundreds and at least two deaths. In September, two newspaper editors were sentenced to five months in prison and their website shut down for a month for alleging corruption at the ministry of justice, while an October royal decree further restricted freedom of expression.
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. The sultan subsequently 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 the 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 have been held twice since, once in 2007 and again in 2011. In October 2011, Omanis elected 84 members of the new Majlis al-Shura from over 1,100 candidates. Out of 77 female candidates, one was elected. The elections were overshadowed by ongoing public protests that roiled the country earlier in the year, as thousands of Omanis across the country mounted regular demonstrations calling for economic and political reform.
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.
Political parties are not permitted, and no meaningful organized political opposition exists. However, 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.
Although corruption has not been perceived to be a serious problem, the issue was an important factor in mobilizing protest in 2011. The legal code does not include freedom of information provisions. Oman was ranked 50 out of 183 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedom of expression is limited, and criticism of the sultan is prohibited. The 2004 Private Radio and Television Companies Law allows for the establishment of private broadcast media outlets. The government permits private print publications, but many of these accept government subsidies, practice self-censorship, or face punishment for crossing political red-lines. In August 2011, Oman’s public prosecutor brought charges against Youssef al-Haj and Ibrahim Ma’mari of the newspaper Al-Zaman for allegations the former made in May about corruption in the Ministry of Justice. In September, both were convicted of “insulting” the Minister of Justice and sentenced to five months in prison. The judge also ordered Al-Zaman to be closed for one month. The men were released on bail pending an appeals hearing. In October, Oman further restricted freedom of the press and expression by vaguely outlawing discussion critical of state security, the military, or other government officials.
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 2011, authorities blocked the website alhara.net, due to vague complaints from citizens that they had been unfairly criticized on the site.
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. During the ongoing protests in 2011, demonstrators carefully avoided calling for the downfall of the regime, and most protests remained peaceful. However, several turned violent, with authorities killing at least two people in separate incidents in February and April. In late February, demonstrators in the northern city of Sohar launched a sustained protest campaign calling for better jobs, improved wages, an end to state corruption, and political reforms. Throughout the spring and summer, authorities cracked down on the protests, detaining hundreds. Dozens convicted of inciting violence were sentenced to prison terms ranging from one month to five years, while hundreds of others were released, never charged, or pardoned. Sultan Qaboos addressed the protestors’ grievances by replacing ten cabinet members and pledging sweeping financial reforms, including raising the minimum wage, bolstering the country’s pension plan, taking measures to create 50,000 new jobs, and providing support for the unemployed.
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 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. Although government authorities must obtain court orders to hold suspects in pretrial detention, they do not regularly follow these procedures. Prisons are not accessible to independent monitors, but former prisoners report overcrowding. The penal code contains vague provisions for offenses against national security, and such 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 agreement. Under these regulations, employers can effectively keep workers from switching jobs and hold them in conditions susceptible 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 a very small percentage of the total labor force in Oman. Despite a 2008 antitrafficking law, Oman remains a destination and transit country for the trafficking of women and men.