Previously, the country had been known as the Sultanate of Muscat and Oman, reflecting historical differences between the coastal area around the capital and the tribal interior, which had been run with limited autonomy by Ibadi imams.

Oman consists of 11 governorates subdivided into smaller wilayats, administrative districts run by local governors, under the guidance of the Interior Ministry. By far the largest governorate is the southern province of Dhofar, whose governor holds ministerial rank.

The hereditary sultan is both the head of state and the head of government. Sultan Qaboos, who appoints the cabinet, is also supreme commander of the armed forces, prime minister and head of the central bank, and holds the ministerial portfolios of defence, foreign affairs and finance. Sultan Qaboos has no direct heir and has not officially designated a successor. If the ruling family is unable to appoint a new sultan unanimously within three days of his death, a letter will be opened, which gives details of the late ruler’s preference.

While political parties are not allowed, Oman has introduced some of the ingredients of a constitutional monarchy

While political parties are not allowed, Oman has introduced some of the ingredients of a constitutional monarchy. The country has a bicameral assembly consisting of an appointed Majlis al-Dawla (Council of State), an advisory body and a partially elected Majlis al-Shoura (Consultative Assembly).

Elections are held at the local level for 84 seats on the Consultative Assembly, which replaced an appointed consultative council in 1991. Wilayats forward a shortlist of elected representatives to the sultan, who then selects the final members. Members sit for four-year terms. The assembly can review and provide recommendations on economic and social legislation drafted by ministries, but it has no oversight on questions of defence, security, foreign affairs or finance.

Universal suffrage for citizens over the age of 21 was introduced in 2003, and the most recent elections to the Majlis al-Shoura were held in October 2011. Members were previously chosen from among tribal leaders, intellectuals and businessmen. In practice, the composition of the chamber has changed little since voting began. Sultan Qaboos promised the assembly expanded powers amid the regional unrest of the Arab uprisings, when limited demonstrations broke out in Oman in February 2011.

The Basic Statute of the State, promulgated by the sultan in 1996, is effectively Oman’s constitution and provides the basis for all legislation, sets out the rights of citizens and delineates the roles of various political authorities and their separation of powers.

Oman’s judicial system has traditionally been based on sharia (Islamic law), and many disputes in rural areas were historically resolved by tribal custom. Since the 1980s, the legal system has been modernised considerably. Magistrates, commercial, sharia and civil courts now come under the aegis of the Justice Ministry. The Supreme Judicial Council sets out policy for the judiciary, oversees the work of the courts and considers judicial appointments.

An independent Office of the Public Prosecutor, formerly part of the Royal Oman Police, has been created, and a Supreme Court is under formation.

The government is also working on plans for regional court complexes to house courts of first instance for criminal cases and those overseeing issues of family law and inheritance, which are usually dealt with under sharia. The Administrative Court hears cases against the government and its institutions.

The Royal Office, part of the cabinet, controls internal and external security and coordinates intelligence and security policies. Under this body, the Internal Security Service investigates matters relating to domestic security, while the sultan’s Special Forces have some responsibility for border security and anti-smuggling operations. The Royal Oman Police provides regular policing and serves as the country’s de facto immigration and customs agency.

Oman governorates

(principal cities in brackets)

  • Al-Batinah North (Sohar)
  • Al-Batinah South (Rostaq)
  • Al-Buraimi (Buraimi)
  • Al-Dakhiliyah (Nizwa)
  • Al-Dhahirah (Ibri)
  • Al-Sharqiyah North (Ibra)
  • Al-Sharqiyah South (Sur)
  • Al-Wusta (Haima)
  • Dhofar (Salalah)
  • Musandam (Khasab)
  • Muscat (Muscat)