Oman: The Sultan’s Symbolic Reforms

An Omani man chooses his candidates at a polling station in Shinas district, on 22 December 2012. (Photo: AFP - Mohammed Mahjoub)

By: Jomana Farhat

Published Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The high turnout for Oman’s municipal elections over the weekend indicates that Omanis are eager to participate in the political process. Despite some signs of reform in this absolute monarchy, activists are still being muzzled and jailed for calling for real change.

Omanis turned out in large numbers to vote in municipal elections on Saturday, 22 December 2012, as part of a process of reform adopted by the authorities last year. Many considered this step to be short of the change they have been calling for, particularly as criticisms of the Sultan and the state are still illegal.

Less than two weeks ago, an appeals court sentenced 23 activists to prison sentences ranging from six months to a year for protesting and expressing their views on social networking sites.

Some who had been released in anticipation of the appeals court ruling said they were psychologically tortured, in addition to other violations during their interrogation and detention.

Protests had erupted in Oman as early as February 2011 following the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings after workers from the private sector gathered in Sohar province to demand better wages.

Most activists insist that their protests do not target the Sultan; they are merely asking for real reforms that will limit the influence of corrupt state officials. The movement’s key demands were summarized in what is called the Nidaa Petition, which was presented to the Sultan at the time of the outbreak of protests nearly two years ago.

The petition calls for a serious effort to fight state corruption, making officials accountable to the elected Shura (Consultative) Council, as well as address social and economic demands such as unemployment, wages, and social insurance.

One of the movement’s more sensitive political demands, which was partially addressed by modest reforms passed in 2011, is related to the succession process. Sultan Qaboos – who is the longest serving Arab ruler with 42 years under his belt – has so far refused to publicly name a crown prince to inherit his position. The protests forced the question of succession to the forefront due to the fact that the Sultan is not married and has no children who would naturally take over the throne.

Qaboos, who overthrew his father in 1970, has also been careful to keep members of the ruling family away from key government positions so as to prevent any direct challenges.

The reforms passed by the Sultan in response to the protests also included changes that would allow more oversight and accountability between the different branches of government, in addition to conceding the first free municipal elections that were held on Saturday.

In the view of some activists, these changes do not go far enough. They point out, for example, that the elected Shura Council was given the right to question ministers, but not the prime minister or those holding sensitive posts in finance, foreign affairs, and defense.

The activists insist that there should be a separation between the royal court and the ministerial cabinet so that any protest or questioning of the latter is not interpreted as an attack on the Sultan himself, who is considered a symbol of the state and therefore cannot be criticized.

Of particular concern for those calling for reform is the level of corruption that potentially exists at all levels of the state without any oversight or accountability.

The royal court’s budget alone for example takes up 15 percent of the overall state budget. The Sultan also has complete control over the defense budget without any oversight by any other branch of government.

There are also questions about two recent cases of corruption in which large amounts of public funds were squandered. The first involved contractors who built the country’s new airport, where it is suspected that millions of dollars were lost.

The second scandal has to do with Oman’s critical oil and gas sector, and particularly the development of the Harweel oil field, which was expected to produce 150,000 barrels a day. But after a four-year delay and the spending of over a billion dollars, the well’s production capacity turned out to be substantially lower than the original estimate.

Some reform-minded members of the Shura Council, as well as other officials like the head of the press association, are generally optimistic, asking activists to be patient and give the Sultan more time to implement reforms.

They argue that the initial steps in that direction have been taken, but full implementation will take time given the country’s political traditions.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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