Oman — The Modern State
Oman keeps a balance between its traditional past and the need to pursue a course of modernisation and development.
PRIOR to the seventies, Oman was the most backward country in the Arab world. But in 1970, Oman was at the historic crossroads as the nation sought to balance its traditional past with the need to pursue a course of modernisation and development. This dilemma was captured in the typical picture of an Omani individual carrying a khanjar but adorned with a wristwatch; or another who carried a camel stick, but travelled by Land Rover or BMW; or who dressed in white dishdasha and skullcap yet concluded business deals by telephone in English and spent his holiday abroad.
When His Majesty Sultan Qaboos came to power his first task was to build a modern country. In 1980 in reflective mood he said: “Ten years ago, when we set out on the long road together, we had little but our faith in our destiny to sustain us. We were poor in everything. We had no hospitals to care for our people, we had no schools to prepare our young to take their place in the world, we had no system of welfare to care for the aged and those in need. We had no government structure with which to organise or develop the resources of our country.”
The task that faced His Majesty Sultan Qaboos was formidable. There was a legacy of more than a century of stagnation, with its accompanying lack of development, with high illiteracy and mortality rates, and isolation from the world. In addition, there were other challenges confronting the young ruler.
The Omani government is headed by His Majesty Sultan Qaboos. He is the head of state and the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. His Majesty the Sultan also holds the chairmanship of the Council of Ministers or can appoint someone who will serve in that position, holding the chairmanship of specialised councils or appointing someone to chair them. He also appoints deputies to the Chairman of the Council of Ministers, ministers and under-secretaries, and secretary-generals. He promulgates laws and ratifies them. He has the power of granting amnesty or commuting sentences. A Council of ministers and specialised Councils assist His Majesty the Sultan in framing the general policies of the state and implementing them.
The Council of Ministers
The Council consists of twenty-five deputy ministers and ministers representing social, political, economic bodies and ministries. The Council of Ministers implements the state’s general policy and submits recommendations to His Majesty in economic, political, social and administrative matters of importance, including proposing draft laws and decrees. The Council also protects the interests of citizens and determines public policies. It discusses development plans and presents them for endorsement by His Majesty the Sultan. Furthermore, the Council discusses proposals of ministries in their areas and takes relevant decisions and recommendations, supervises work of the state’s administrative system and oversees the general supervision of laws, decrees, and regulations.
The Specialised Councils are:
- Defence Council
- Finance and Energy Resources
The above two councils are headed by His Majesty the Sultan and include members of the Council of Ministers. There are other specialised councils which are headed by a member of the Council of Ministers or a Secretary-General. These councils are: Civil Servants Council, Sultan Qaboos University Council, General Organisation for Youth Sports and Cultural Activities, Vocational Training Organisation and Oman Charitable Organisation.
Oman’s Democratic Development
His Majesty Sultan Qaboos combines traditional government roles with the responsibilities of a modern state. Within the age-old system of Sultanic rule, individual Omanis had the right of access to their Sultan, who was regarded as the father of the nation. His Majesty the Sultan attached great importance to personal contact with the people of Oman. One principal means for this was the establishment of the State Consultative Council. Of this His Majesty has said: “The council shall also be a vital field for interaction and integration between the opinions of its members and full co-operation and integration between the government and the citizens in carrying out the duties and obligations of the current stage of development.”
The question of political participation is of special importance to the social and political stability of Oman. The urge for democratic development in Oman tends to be the outcome of the country’s unique social development rather than be prompted from outside. Perhaps the most dramatic change in the recent history of Omani politics was the creation of the Majlis Ash’shura. The Majlis Ash’shura is unique in the history of the Al Bu Said dynasty, because previous Sultans have rarely, if ever, made any attempt to seek out popular opinion.
The Omani democratic process was carried a stage further in 1991, with the implementation of His Majesty the Sultan’s intention to establish a Majlis Ash’shura. This is a state advisory council, wholly composed of elected representatives of the people and with no government membership. In 1995 the democratic development took a further significant step forward with the election to the Majlis Ash’shura of the first two women members, and included all ethnic groups. In 1996, the Sultanate introduced the Basic Law of the State.
This included freedom of the press (Art 29, 31), justice (Art 18, 20, 24), and equality between Omanis (Art 17), sovereignty of the laws and of the State and the System of Governance (Parts 1 and 2). In addition, His Majesty the Sultan carries on the democratic process through his annual tours of the country. During his annual tours, he meets the Omani people to discuss development processes, as well as spreading awareness about obstacles that impede development.
Political development is about allocating resources, recognising and prioritising the needs of society to raise the standards of living, levels of education and skill, and the productivity of members of the society. Years of research have shown that it is not a simple or linear process, but that one of the key requirements for success is the ability to mobilise positive participation of the widest range of people in society. The other key requirement is appropriate co-ordination amongst influential forces in society, such as in the political system, economic community leaders and intellectual elite.
In the course of his National Day address to the nation in November 1990, His Majesty Sultan Qaboos announced that a Majlis Ash’shura was to replace the State Consultative Council. The latter originally consisted of 35 nominated members, and was subsequently increased to 55 members. The main difference was that whereas the State Consultative Council was a nominated body, the new Majlis Ash’shura was to be wholly elected with no government members.
Each wilayat, of which there are 59 throughout the country, then sent one elected member to the Majlis. The term of membership is for three calendar years, and may be renewable for one or more terms. The President of the Majlis is appointed by Royal Decree. Each wilayat nominated three citizens as candidates for election to the Majlis. A committee consisting of respected citizens of experience in the wilayat administered the nominations. One of the three nominees was then selected for membership of the Majlis.
During 1994, His Majesty Sultan Qaboos approved the expansion of the Majlis Ash’shura from a representative body of 59 members to 80 members, based on the results of the first National Census held in December 1993. Those wilayats with a population of more than 30,000 would nominate four candidates, from whom two would be selected by His Majesty to represent their wilayat in the Majlis. In the case of wilayats with a population of less than 30,000 there would be two nominees, from whom one would be selected by His Majesty to sit as representative of his or her wilayat.
His Majesty also decreed the participation of women in the vote for the first time, and their right to be nominated for representation in the Majlis. It was limited to the six provinces in or near the capital, Muscat, but it is now extended to the whole of Oman. As a result, two women now sit as representatives in the Majlis Ash’shura. Among the principal duties of the Majlis is the reviewing of all social and economic draft laws prepared by ministries before their enactment.
The Majlis also participates in deciding on development plans, and in following up their implementation within the approved general strategy of the state, effectively subject to the availability of funds. It also participates in the work to conserve the environment. The Council of Ministers arranges two annual meetings attended by the President and Bureau Members of the Majlis to follow up the co-ordination procedures between the government and the Majlis. The ministers of public service ministries submit annual reports to the Majlis regarding their ministries' performance.
In order to widen the political participation, the Omani democratic process was carried a step further last year by allowing all Omani nationals above the age of 21 to vote, also allowing women for first time in the Gulf to fully participate in the process. The discussions between the ministers and members of the Council are transmitted live by the Omani mass media, thereby increasing awareness in Omani society on issues of socio-economic development.
The increase of political awareness among the Omani public helps to establish a wider understanding of the country's present and future problems. It must be noted that the Majlis discussions are not censored, which has allowed the public to be better informed about the socio-economic problems facing the country. The organisation and functions of Majlis Ash'shura are as follows:
- It shall have an independent administrative and financial status and shall be located in Muscat. Muscat was chosen because of its political and economic centrality. Besides, majority of Omanis live in the coastal area of the country.
- The Council shall have 80 members representing the wilayats of the Sultanate.
- The period of membership of the Council is three years, which can be renewed for another term or more. Opportunity is thus provided for politically active members to remain in the Council if they are elected again in their wilayat. However, the wilayat may change their representative or re-elect them.
- A Royal Decree will be issued naming the President of the Council.
- The Council members shall select two deputies for the President from among the members of the Council. This will be done during the first session.
- The offices of the Council include the President, his two deputies and five members of the Council to be selected by the Council during the first session.
- The Council shall have a Secretariat-General consisting of the secretary-general and a number of assistant secretaries and other personnel. The secretary-general is to be appointed by a decision from the Council's office on a recommendation by the President. The secretary-general is to be granted the financial grade of an under-secretary in the civil service.
- The Majlis Ash'shura shall assist the government in all matters concerning Omani society. It shall suggest the means of reinforcing the basic structures and the original values of Omani society.
- In order to achieve its goals, the Council shall have the following powers:
- Review the draft laws on economic and social matters, as prepared by the ministries, before they are issued.
- Present its proposals on what it regards as necessary for economic and social development in the country and relevant laws to be executed in the Sultanate.
- Provide opinion and proposals on general policies presented to it by the government.
- Participate in the preparation of the country's development plans, and follow up on their implementation, with due consideration of the state's general strategy and its available resource capacities.
- Participate in reinforcing the citizens' awareness of the country's development objectives, its priorities and the efforts that are exerted to carry them out. This will reinforce the link between the citizens and the government.
- Participate in the efforts for the conservation of the environment and its protection from pollution.
- Study matters related to the public services and utilities, and present suggestions on how to develop them.
- Study obstacles that face the economic sector and present appropriate suggestions aimed at overcoming those obstacles.
- Give opinions on other subjects that His Majesty the Sultan thinks should be presented to the Council.
- The Council of Ministers shall allocate two of its meetings each year to be attended by the President and members of the Council's office. The objective is to follow up means of co-ordination between the Government and the Council in the public interest.
- The public service ministers shall submit annual statements on the achievements and plans of their ministries and shall answer questions by the Council members on these plans. The Council has the right to call any of the public service ministers to discuss matters related to the duties of their ministries whenever they so require.
- The government ministries and organisations and public authorities shall co-operate with the Majlis Ash'shura so as to facilitate its purpose. They shall submit to the Council any statements or information regarding matters within the concern of the Council.
- The Council shall refer to its appropriate committees whatever applications or proposals are received from citizens on general issues and then seek the government's opinion. The citizen shall be entitled to receive an answer to his/her request.
- The President of the Council shall submit to His Majesty the Sultan the results of the Council's activities once a year.