Mixed messages on reform in Oman

04 October 2012

The trial of young Omani activists who criticised the government’s slow pace of reforms will be a litmus test for the way Muscat deals with calls for more political and economic freedom

On 7 October, 16 Omani activists will go to the country’s court of appeal in Muscat in an attempt to overturn the decision to send them to jail for periods spanning 12 to 18 months, for staging a small protest in June. In the following days, there will be two more appeal hearings for young Omanis, who were sentenced for a similar period of time for negative comments written on social media sites about the country’s ruler, Sultan Qaboos bin Saeed al-Saeed.

There was a window last year for them to prepare for the future and commit to reform … but they chose not to

Marc Valeri, Essex University

The trials of about 40 young Omanis have not garnered much attention in the international press, yet for many observers of the country’s political and social system, they have become a litmus test for the way that Muscat deals with growing calls for political and economic reform. They also fly in the face of the general perception that the Arab Uprisings of 2011 did not affect the stable sultanate, and that the kind of activism seen in other parts of the Arab world does not trouble Oman’s apolitical populace.

Early protests in Oman

Sultan Qaboos, who has ruled Oman for 42 years, was seen as reacting quickly to the civil unrest of 2011, sparing himself the fate of his counterparts in North Africa. Protests broke out in Muscat in January 2011, with most demonstrators venting their frustration over low wages, the rising cost of living and perceived corruption and collusion between the government and the country’s economic elite.

The protest movement, at first small and peaceful, was given new teeth when two protesters were shot by security forces in the northern industrial town of Sohar in February. Growing numbers of Omanis took to the streets in the following weeks. In February 2011, Sultan Qaboos ordered a 43 per cent increase to the minimum wage, to $520 a month, an increase in the welfare payments offered to job-seekers, and announced the creation of 50,000 new public sector jobs, ring-fenced for Omanis. In March, he announced a major cabinet reshuffle within the Council of Ministers, which he heads as de facto prime minister, removing Ali al-Mamari, Ahmed Makki and Maqbool al-Sultan, the ministers of the royal office, economy and commerce and industry, respectively. Protesters had reserved particular ire for the three, who were seen as the public face of unacceptable levels of corruption and cronyism in the sultanate.

In terms of real change to the government, there hasn’t been as much as perhaps was expected

Former adviser to the government

Shortly after the reshuffle, Sultan Qaboos issued a decree that the country’s consultative council, the Majlis al-Shura, be given new legislative powers and be allowed to elect a speaker internally. Candidates for the council were allowed for the first time to advertise their campaigns in the run up to the election held in October 2011. The new council members were also allowed to elect a chairman for the first time, choosing the young businessman, Khalid bin Hilal Al Mawali. In the past, Sultan Qaboos had chosen the chairman from within the ranks of the council. The sultan expanded on the promise to increase the council’s power in October, giving members the chance to approve, reject and amend legislation, and to question ministers.

In May 2011, Sultan Qaboos issued another decree effectively dissolving the Ministry of National Economy and replacing it with the Supreme Council for Planning, which he himself would chair. The decree also created a new government body, the National Centre for Statistics and Data, which was to act as a quasi-independent data collection agency. By that point, according to activists in Muscat, the protest movement had quieted somewhat because of a campaign of arrests and jail sentences. Around 100 people were jailed over a period of several months, while hundreds more were arrested, told not to return to the streets and set free.

Oman’s muted reforms

Sultan Qaboos has long mixed soft power like job creation and the expansion of benefits with the threat of hard power, mainly in the form of stiff jail sentences for those voicing dissent, although these are often commuted, with dissidents later offered jobs with good salaries.

But Omanis were surprised that the sultan, who in the past has made reforms without major demands from the populace, did not go further in 2011. Many had expected that he would appoint a prime minister. “There was more said than done [in terms of reform],”says  a former government adviser. “They removed a lot of basic competencies by folding the economy ministry, but in terms of real change to the government, there hasn’t been as much as perhaps was expected.”

Sultan Qaboos’ decision to take over the economy ministry could be seen as a bold step, he says, given that “any minister of national economy, if he is not corrupt, becomes corrupt.” The creation of the statistics agency should be a positive step, he adds, as a lack of credible data has been a major issue for analysts in the past, a point echoed by bankers and economists in Muscat. “But the net result was that it gave the sultan more power [over the economy],” he says.

This is troublesome because one of the few areas of genuine public debate in Oman in recent years has centred on the economy. It is a relatively open and liberal country, especially when compared with neighbouring Saudi Arabia or the UAE. Since the mid-2000s, the government has allowed the formation of societies, such as the Oman Economic Association, which has been outspoken about the way the economy is run, and limited labour unions. 

Bloggers and journalists have become emboldened in challenging ministers and government officials on issues ranging from strategy to corruption. The one unspoken rule has been that Omanis cannot criticise the sultan. But in Oman, the highest ranking government official is Sultan Qaboos (after a brief experiment with an appointed prime minister in the 1990s). “There are no real institutions in Oman,” the former adviser says. “Only the sultan.”

This has meant walking a fine line when questioning government policy so as not to appear to be criticising the country’s leader.

Free speech in Oman

Limitations on freedom of speech have been tested in recent years. After the protests in 2011, many critics of the government have felt compelled to push the boundaries. But the trial of the activists reveals there are limitations to what is acceptable.

After three members of a newly formed human rights organisation were arrested after trying to report on one of a series of nationwide strikes in May, Omani police started arresting users of social media sites the three were signed up to, for comments seen as slanderous to the sultan. A group of 16 activists, among them lawyers and government workers, decided to hold a daily hour-long protest in front of the police headquarters in the Qurum district of Muscat, demanding that those who had been arrested be allowed to communicate with the outside world and given access to lawyers. They too were arrested  and it is this group, sentenced in August, that will appeal on October 7.

Many of those out on trial have expressed surprise at the harshness of the sentences handed down to them. “I knew they would come for us,” says one of the activists who will appeal on October 7.

“But I thought the sentence would be maybe for a few months. This shows how much they want to silence us.”

Who ‘they’ are remains an open question among Omanis. Although the sultan is the country’s absolute ruler, he is seen as a largely benevolent figure. Sources in Muscat with ties to the palace and the country’s powerful security forces say that conservative elements within the military, police and legal system are leading the charge in attempts to silence their critics. “They don’t know what to do, and see the young people challenging their authority, so they are doing their best to shut people up,” says a source with knowledge of the thinking of some members of the judiciary.

Many of the criticisms levelled by activists at the sultan relate to the belief that he had not done enough to allow more participatory government and that he had not prepared the country sufficiently for the transition which will come when his rule ends. At 72, Sultan Qaboos is said to be in good health, but he has slowly disappeared from public life, even refraining from the annual tours of the country.

The events of 2011 were a good chance for the sultan to start making plans for the future, the former government adviser says. Many Omanis have been quietly calling for the restoration of the post of prime minister in the hope that a head of government would be more accountable and would allow stronger criticism of the way the country is run, without attacks on the government being seen as attacks on the sultan. “But I believe that the miracle has passed,” he says.

Oman’s municipal elections

Some moves have been made to make government more accountable. In May, the government announced that elections would be held in 2012 for municipal councils in Oman. Yet members of the Majlis al-Shura worry that the municipal councils could take away some of their newfound powers.

Most Omanis see the councils as a good step, but complain about the mixed messages. The sultan, it seems, wants people to play a bigger role in the way the country is run, and to make government more accountable, yet will not countenance criticism.

Ultimately, says Marc Valeri, a lecturer at the UK’s Essex University and an expert on Omani politics and society, the past two years have shown that the sultan and his inner circle have no plans to share any more power than they have already ceded.

“They have demonstrated very clearly that they don’t want to share power at the moment or institute any substantial political reforms,” he says. “There was a window last year for them to prepare for the future and commit to reform. They could have appointed a prime minister, which would have been a clever move, but they chose not to.”

Key fact

In February 2011, Sultan Qaboos announced the creation of 50,000 public sector jobs

Source: MEED

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