Freedom in the World
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Oman received a downward trend arrow due to arrests of human rights and political reform advocates and increased restrictions on free expression in online forums.
After Sultan Qaboos bin Said was slow to institute promised economic and political reforms, a series of antigovernment protests in 2012 led to crackdowns on freedoms of expression and assembly, with dozens of activists arrested throughout the year. The 2011 convictions of two journalists who wrote about corruption in the Ministry of Justice were upheld following an appeal. In December, municipal elections were held for the first time in Oman’s history.
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, which lasted 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, when Omanis elected 84 members of the new Majlis al-Shura from over 1,100 candidates.
Oman held its first ever municipal elections in December 2012. Fifty percent of eligible voters participated, choosing between 1,475 candidates for seats on 192 local councils. Four women won seats in the elections.
Following demonstrations in 2011 calling for economic and political reforms, Sultan Qaboos promised new jobs, an increase in social benefits, and measures to address government corruption. After three human rights activists were arrested in May 2012 while traveling to observe a strike by oil workers, the government began arresting bloggers and writers who had been critical of the government in online forums and social media. New protests were held in June calling for the release of the imprisoned activists, for greater freedom of expression, as well as for faster implementation of promised economic reforms. By year’s end, more than 30 activists, writers, and bloggers had been arrested or detained.
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 a factor in mobilizing protests in 2011 and 2012. The legal code does not include freedom of information provisions. Oman was ranked 61 out of 176 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2012 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 September 2011, Youssef al-Haj and Ibrahim Ma’mari of the newspaper Al-Zaman were convicted of “insulting” the minister of justice and sentenced to five months in prison after reporting in May on allegations of corruption at the ministry. In January 2012, an appeals court upheld the convictions, but suspended their sentences.
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 on personal blogs. Throughout 2012, authorities increased the monitoring of social media and arrested several Omanis for posting “negative” or “insulting” material, spreading rumors about national security, or inciting protests. Thirty-two activists received prison sentences ranging from 6 to 18 months for posting comments on social media that were considered slanderous to Sultan Qaboos.
Islam is the state religion. Non-Muslims have the right to worship, though 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. In 2012, a dozen activists were fined and sentenced to one year in prison for participating in protests held in support of writers and bloggers who had been arrested for libeling the Sultan. The basic law allows the formation of nongovernmental organizations, but civic 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. In May 2012, over a thousand oil workers from contracted companies went on strike calling for increased wages, health insurance, and risk compensation. Most of the strikers were fired form their positions but later rehired after signing oaths stating that their strike was illegal and that they would not strike again.
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. The authorities do not regularly follow requirements to obtain court orders to hold suspects in pretrial detention. 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. Prisons are not accessible to independent monitors, but former prisoners report overcrowding.
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.