OMANI ELECTION: The people have their say

20 October 2003
In the week prior to Saudi Arabia's historic announcement of municipal elections, Oman hailed a new era of democratic reform. On 4 October, all Omanis over the age of 21 were given the chance to vote in elections for the 82-member Majlis al-Shoura.

However, extending suffrage to include around 822,000 Omanis had little effect on the political map. Voters stuck to tribal loyalties and family ties when it came to casting their ballots. In previous years, voting was limited to a hand-picked quota of 25 per cent of the population.

The changes to the electoral system were expected to deliver a greater role for women in public affairs. Yet only two women, Lujainah Muhsen Darwish and Rahila al-Riyami, from 15 female candidates won seats - and they were running for re-election.

The council can advise the government on certain issues but has no direct authority over policy. This promise of limited influence failed to bring voters out in force. Only 262,000 - or 32 per cent - of those eligible to vote registered and the government is coy about the official turnout.

For those Omanis that did turn out the importance of the event was not missed, however. 'It is our duty to be part of these elections,' said government employee Ali Bahwani on polling day. 'We all want to see Oman prosper as a progressive and welcoming country. If we are looking ahead we cannot ignore democracy. Our country needs more transparency to attract investment.'

Attracting more foreign investment and liberalising the economy are key tenets of the government's strategy. And if elections, in the short term, help to promote Oman overseas they have served their purpose well. 'It's slow and sure but it's steady change,' says a London-based Oman analyst. 'The country is already investor-friendly. For instance, foreign companies are now subject to the same 12 per cent tax bracket as local firms. Greater political representation can only help raise Oman's profile overseas. Five years ago women having the vote anywhere in the Gulf was unthinkable.'

Change does not come as easily, or as quickly, as some would like in the Gulf. Sultan Qaboos, while adhering to his promise on taking power in 1970 to 'create a modern government', retains absolute control. Major decisions pass through the Majlis al-Omani, which comprises his inner circle of advisers, and below it the appointed Majlis al-Dawla. But the challenges of reform are being tackled head-on in Oman. Under-secretary for information Adullah bin Shwain al-Hosni says: 'We have come from nothing in 1970 to where we are today. Oil will not last forever in Oman and we have to diversify. Political reform is part of the same plan.'

The new direction is apparent across the Gulf. Kuwait's National Assembly may have limited suffrage but it is an active force in domestic politics. Bahrain elected its first parliament for a generation some 12 months ago. The process is progressing in Qatar: the April referendum approved a new constitution and the first elections for the Shoura Council are expected to be staged in the first half of next year. With Oman advancing and Saudi Arabia making its intentions clear, only the UAE has resisted the drift towards democracy.

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