After Elections, Oman Faces Challenge of Reform

Gulf States Newsletter No. 721, Friday, October 31, 2003

Sultan Qaboos Bin Saeed inaugurated the third session of Oman’s joint majlis on 21 October with talk of the country’s “enterprise in the field of democratic action”, but although recent steps toward political reform in the Sultanate have looked good on paper, they have yet to satisfy a populace that would like more of a voice in the country’s affairs.

Oman has long been known as a peaceable garden spot in a region given to big ambitions and occasional strife, but real reforms both political and economic will be needed before long if the sultanate is to avoid the kind of social and economic strains that have beset other Gulf monarchies.

The 4 October elections for the Majlis Al-Shura (consultative council) – the first conducted with universal suffrage for Omanis 21 and over – saw less than impressive voter turnout. Of the approximately 800,000 Omanis eligible to vote, some 262,000 registered, and less than 200,000 actually voted.

Sultan Qaboos was clearly hoping for more. Private sector employees were given a day’s holiday if they could demonstrate they had voted, and the government mounted a huge get-out-and-vote campaign prior to the election (GSN 719/4) – though this was perhaps too little, too late.

Local critics also questioned the ban on campaigning in the media, which made it difficult for the 500-plus candidates to reach more people than they could shake hands with. Ultimately, though, the problem was lack of voter engagement, especially in the more liberal and educated precincts in and around Muscat. Though Omanis were pleased to get the vote – previous electorates have consisted of a small number of voters hand-picked by regional administrators – widespread scepticism about the council’s effectiveness kept many away from the polls.

Small steps forward
The result is a council that should prove less pro-active than its predecessor, according to local political correspondents and Western diplomatic sources in Oman, a development that calls into question the efficacy of Sultan Qaboos’s reforms.

Turnout was reportedly higher in the interior, where voters tend to support whoever the local leaders – themselves appointed by the government in Muscat – tell them to. Incumbents were forced out of many seats by term limits, and more than half the 83-member council consists of new faces. The two female incumbents held their seats (GSN 720/4), though none of the 13 other women standing won their races.

Sultan Qaboos is seemingly more progressive than his citizens in this regard. He has said he would like more female Majlis members, has installed a number of women in senior government posts and earlier in 2003 appointed Sheikha Aisha Bint Khalfan Bin Jameel Al-Sayabiyah minister of the National Authority for Industrial Craftsmanship, the first female minister in any of the six Gulf Co-operation Council states.

Universal suffrage increases the Majlis’s mandate, but the low turnout calls it into question. Other changes may give members more latitude: term limits have been lifted, and the term has been increased to four years, from three.

The idea that the Majlis Al-Shura might punch more weight because of its broadened mandate does not seem to have caught on among Majlis members, however. Sultan Qaboos also sounded a note of caution in his remarks, calling on the council to keep in mind the unity of the nation and the “responsible endeavour” they are charged with.

Two steps back?
One US-based Gulf analyst cast Oman as the one state in the region that is actually moving backward in terms of reform.

Economically, this is certainly the danger. Like the rest of the region, Oman struggles to find jobs for its growing population, though it does not have the same high levels of foreign workers as the UAE. Sultan Qaboos’s “Omanisation” policy, however, has no strong direction, and the search for alternatives to oil revenues has been slow to get off the ground.

A major challenge will be World Trade Organisation (WTO) accession. As more and more sectors are opened to international competition, Gulf states will need to adopt more robust policies to keep domestic businesses healthy and competitive.

Oman’s robust banking sector could be hit by accession should foreign banks – unfettered by the poor loan portfolios that have plagued some institutions in recent years – make a rapid entry. Of more immediate concern are the country’s big trading concerns, which will find themselves competing with foreign dealers who are not constrained by family ties and other inefficient business practices.

One Western security analyst noted that while autocratic rule prevails throughout the Gulf, Oman – which has traditionally relied on a close relationship with the UK for what little military muscle it flexes – may not be as well placed to deal with much unrest as some other Gulf states. With at least some token movement toward reform already taken, Sultan Qaboos now has the chance to do much more. Which way Oman’s future lies could depend on whether he takes it.

Omani boy, the pipes are calling
The close relations Oman enjoys with the UK were in evidence just after the opening of the Majlis, when UK Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon paid a cursory visit to Muscat on a late-October tour of the Gulf. He will be followed by Prince Charles, who will stop in Oman on 5-9 November, on his way back to England from India.

The UK views Oman as its toe-hold in the Gulf. The military relationship goes back to 1798, when the first treaty was signed providing British protection for the Sultanate. In fact, the Omani military is so Anglo-centric that its musical ensemble is the Royal Omani Mounted Police Camel Pipe Band, led by John Bruce, the only Scot in a band of Omani pipers. Sultan Qaboos recently ordered a Scottish tartan for his army, according to The Times of London. The Scottish Tartans Authority is currently approving the design.