In 2014 I taught the first political science courses at Sultan Qaboos University in Oman. In the first lecture I asked the students to define their political system. I expected them to say monarchy, sultanate or something similar. However, a student raised his hand and confidently declared: “Dr., Oman is a democracy.”
I went on to explain why Oman was not a democracy according to any standard definition. Three years later, I am not so sure I was correct to dismiss the student’s claim so readily. In fact, Oman poses a problem for analysts looking to neatly classify states on an authoritarian – democratic continuum. Oman on one hand is one of the most absolutist states in the world, with political power centralised almost entirely within the person of the Sultan. Yet at the same time, as the great majority of Omanis and foreign residents will testify, the economic and social atmosphere of Oman is one of the most open and decompressed in the Middle East. In addition, Omanis, and in particular its Ibadhi population, lay claim to a long democratic tradition based on “shura” (consultation) principles enshrined in Islam.
This paradox of a closed political structure and an open social environment requires further examination by comparative-politics researchers. However, in order to place Oman on a regional map of democratic or participatory indicators, this short review suggests – perhaps controversially – that Oman belongs to the category of “partial democracy”. This categorisation rests on a broad definition of democracy including consideration of high levels of legitimacy of the Sultan, adapted shura principles, and the general atmosphere of openness in the day to day life of is citizens and large expatriate population. This is not to say that Oman is an ideal model, as many political, economic, environmental and demographic challenges confront the country’s political system and national unity, not the least of which is an unsustainable overreliance on its modest oil resources and the uncertainty around political transition beyond the ageing Sultan Qaboos.
The Arab Spring events of 2010-11 have been widely identified as a crucial moment for democratic transformations across the Middle East. This has been seen as (still unsatisfied) popular demands for freedom and justice, genuine regime change as per the Tunisian case, or as a shift in mindset among populations about political participation. In the Omani case it is more useful, however, to look at the longer trajectory of the country to get a sense of its “democratic” credentials six years after the start of the Arab Spring.
The historic political system of Oman, in particular in its Ibadhi heartland in the north and interior of what is now the modern state, was deeply infused with the Ibadhi interpretation of Islam. Ibadhism resisted the bisection of the Islamic world onto Shi’a and Sunni paths in the seventh century and claims to have retained adherence to original Islamic principles. A key element of the political system of “Old Oman” was that shura should lie at the heart of politics. Hence, Ibadhi political institutions rested on the fundamental Islamic principle that “any affair between men is a subject for consultation”. In Oman we therefore find a long tradition of consultation and consensus in terms of establishing a stable social contract. In other words, political decisions required a broad consultation with the different religious and tribal actors and populations in order to achieve consensus and legitimacy for power.
The “ulama” (the religious authorities) were the supreme legislative authority and they were responsible for the election and dismissal of the Imam, as the ‘head of state’. Once elected, the Imam was bound to abide by and apply shura principles in his rule. An elaborate system of councils extended upwards from the population to the Imam. Tribal shaykhs would consult with their tribe before going to a general assembly (al-Majlis al-‘Am), and once consensus was achieved, decisions would then be taken to an upper council (al-Majlis as-Shura). The Imam was then bound to take the advice of the upper council. The Imam’s power and legitimacy was reliant on respecting this form of “consultative democracy”, and there were instances when Imams were dismissed by the ulama for not following shura principles. The Imam was also legally accountable. There is the often-repeated story in Oman of the Imam al-Khalili (1919-1953) who was summoned before the Qadis (religious court) in a dispute over a camel and lost to the Bedouin claimant.
Despite periodic tribal conflict, this system more or less prevailed up until the eighteenth century when the current al-Busaidi dynasty consolidated power and commenced a hereditary Sultanate system that increasingly leaned on British support for its power. Without delving too deeply into the historic details, more than a century of political crisis occurred between the 1850s and the 1970s characterized by external interference, fratricidal infighting among the ruling family, and conflict with supporters of restoration of the Imamate or rebellious regions. The Dhofar war of 1962-76 was the last period of instability and the new Sultan, Qaboos, set about restoring Oman’s stability and unity in the 1970s. The common use of the term “nahda” (renaissance) to describe his period of rule can therefore be understood in this context.
In contrast to the Ibadhi model, the Sultan, Qaboos Bin Said, has had unchallenged power over the executive, legislature and the judiciary since the early 1970s. He is simultaneously the Sultan, Foreign Minister, commander of the armed forces and the position of Prime Minister has been left vacant since Qaboos’ uncle, Tariq bin Taimur, vacated the position in 1971. It is strictly illegal according to Oman’s basic law to criticise or disparage the actions or the person of the Sultan in any way. Article 41 of Oman’s Basic Law (1996) clearly states that the Sultan is “inviolable and must be respected and his orders must be obeyed”. Moreover, the country’s sense of national identity and the Sultan are intrinsically linked both implicitly and explicitly. Images of the Sultan are ubiquitous across the country in everything from commercial advertising to individual social media profiles. Interestingly the government itself refrains from installing brazen public images of the Sultan. Nonetheless, article 41 of the Basic Law states clearly: “The Sultan is the symbol of national unity as well as its guardian and defender.”
The parliamentary institutions that were established from the early 1980s had no real legislative authority, but rather served the purpose of facilitating consultation and consensus between different groups and the Sultan. The lack of political parties in parliament can be explained in this context. In the Majlis Oman, often described as a “shaykhocracy” in its early years, decisions are always taken by consensus among independent MPs representing different tribal, regional or religious groups. In 1996 an upper house was added to the Majlis, the State Council, whose members were appointed directly by the Sultan and has equal numbers and voting power as the elected lower house, or Majlis as-Shura (universal suffrage was allowed in 2003). This put a substantial handbrake on the Majlis as-Shura’s ability to push forward controversial proposals.
Yet, interestingly, the State Council members are always announced by royal decree one week after the Shura elections. The pattern has been that any groups that miss out on representation through elections are always included into the State Council. For example, in 2003 no Shi’a candidate won a seat in the Majlis as-Shura elections, which was remedied a week later by the Sultan’s appointment of Shi’a notables in the State Council list. In addition, important families from the old Imamate – which was finally subdued in 1959 – are usually represented in parliament. So, on one hand, the State Council acts as a control mechanism over the Majlis as-Shura, yet also provides an important tool to ensure complete representation, and therefore capacity for consultation and consensus, in a similar manner to the old Ibadhi “consultative democracy”.
After the 2011 Arab Spring – which included major protests in Sohar and Salalah – demands for expansion of the legislative powers of the Majlis were heeded by the Sultan and the Basic Law was amended in 2011 to upgrade the Majlis from a purely consultative to a de jure legislative body. After 2011 the Majlis (either house) can in theory propose or amend legislation, summon ministers for questioning, elect their own chairman, review government draft laws, and review major government contracts. The Majlis also requested in 2011 to be able to establish defence and foreign affairs committees, but this was rejected by the Sultan.
A useful indicator of the health of political engagement and participation in Oman are the four-yearly elections to the Majlis as-Shura. There is an enduring public perception that the Majlis members are self-serving and largely powerless to effect policies and laws on behalf of constituents. This explains the declining voter turnout in elections. In 2007 there was 62.5 per cent turnout among registered voters. In 2011, possibly due to the expectation around the Arab Spring protests and the upgrading of the Majlis’ powers, voter turnout spiked to 76 per cent. But in the most recent election in 2015, expectations seem to have further reduced, with a drop to 56 per cent turnout. Nonetheless the integrity of Omani elections is generally not questioned. The Electoral Integrity Project ranked Oman’s election integrity as ‘high’ in 2015 and third in the Middle East behind Israel and Tunisia.
In 2015 reforms were made to the electoral system, including comprehensive judicial supervision of elections, electronic voting, which improved confidentiality and speed of results. Also, unsuccessful candidates are entitled to appeal the results within 10 days of the elections. Any proven electoral manipulations, such as bribery of voters, carry heavy punishments. Overall, these reforms and upgrades to representative institutions have been largely superficial to date; however, the parliament has been getting gradually more assertive and regularly summons ministers and tables draft bills – some of which are quite controversial, such as a proposal to ban all alcohol from the Sultanate in 2015.
The media remains highly restricted in Oman and Freedom House ranked the Omani press as “Not Free” in 2015. While officially freedom of expression is guaranteed within the frame of law, the Press and Publications Law of 1984 is highly restrictive around political issues and newspapers generally apply a policy of strict self-censorship. The government considers the media to be a key plank in its project to develop the country and to protect its internal and external relations. It therefore insists that it is necessary to have a “guided media” to avoid conflict with other states, and reduce negative attitudes around religious and political issues. Nonetheless, while Omani media outlets tend to be quite bland and avoid controversy, there are few restriction on access to international media. Civil society is similarly guided by the government in Oman. And all organisations must be registered and approved by the government.
Despite the limitations on political participation in Oman the general socio-political atmosphere is one of the most open in the Middle East, on par with Lebanon, Israel, Kuwait and post 2011 Tunisia. Public discussion of political issues is tolerated and the government mostly relies on self-censorship and rarely resorts to harsh measures to enforce compliance and quiescence. The establishment of a political science department at Sultan Qaboos University in 2012 indicated a willingness by the Sultan to encourage a new generation of engaged and politically aware Omanis. During three years teaching at this department I was never limited or directed in the scope of material to be covered. Monitoring no doubt exists, but the only subjects that were indirectly warned against were sectarianism and religious divisions.
The reason for the lack of tension in relations between society and the political system possibly relates to the close reflection of traditional values in the government’s approach. Whilst Sultan Qaboos maintains a position of unchallenged authority in the country, he has been careful to ensure that traditional principles of consultation are maintained. This started in the 1970s with the yearly annual tours whereby the Sultan would tour the country gathering grass roots opinion and gauging the interests and needs of the population. The careful retention of the status of traditional tribal and religious figures in their communities, albeit under the “big tent” of the Sultan’s regime, has also allowed the government to avoid substantial structural strain on society as the country gradually modernised.
Sultan Qaboos has been the architect of Oman’s current status as a partial democracy in a broad sense; however, he borrowed and adapted much of the design from Oman’s historic tradition of “shura”. The question remains whether the next sultan will move the country towards deeper consultative democracy or dictatorship.