Democracy and the rule of law


The United Nations maintains the basic principle that democracy and human rights are linked. The Office of the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) says that respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and the process of holding free and fair elections are essential elements of democracy, which in turn protects political and civil rights.[1]

In its latest annual country report, the US research organisation Freedom House categorises Oman as a country that is “Not Free”, giving it a score of 23/100 for the political rights and civil liberties enjoyed by the population. It states, in brief, that Oman is a hereditary monarchy, and power is concentrated in the hands of the sultan. The regime restricts virtually all political rights and civil liberties, imposing criminal penalties for criticism and dissent.[2]

Here, the Omani Centre for Human Rights highlights the key points in the Freedom House report that underpin its rating of Oman as “Not Free”, and the rationale for giving it a score of 23/100 for the third year in succession.

1 – Electoral process

The 1996 basic law, promulgated by decree, created a bicameral body consisting of an appointed Council of State (Majlis al-Dawla) and a wholly elected Consultative Council (Majlis al-Shura). Citizens elect the Shura Council every four years, but the chamber has no legislative powers and can only recommend changes to new laws.

The electoral framework allows all citizens over the age of 21 to vote unless they are in the military or security forces. However, the framework applies only to the Shura Council and municipal councils, which serve largely as advisory bodies. Elections are administered by the Ministry of Interior rather than by an independent commission.[3]

2 – Political pluralism and participation

Political parties are not permitted, and the authorities do not tolerate other forms of organised political opposition. A 2014 law allows the revocation of citizenship for Omanis who join organisations deemed harmful to national interests.

The sultan maintains a monopoly on political power. The structure of the constitutional system excludes the possibility of a change in government through elections.

The nonpartisan nature of Oman’s limited elections, the overwhelming dominance of the sultan in Omani society, and the authorities’ suppression of dissent leave voters and candidates with little autonomy in their political choices.

Non-citizens, who make up about 44% of the population, have no political rights or electoral opportunities. Citizenship is generally transmitted from Omani fathers only. Foreign residents must live legally in the country for 20 years to qualify for citizenship, or 15 and 10 years for foreign husbands and wives of Omani citizens, respectively, if they have a son. These and other conditions make naturalisations relatively rare.

Omani women can legally vote and run for office, but they have few practical opportunities to organise independently and advance their interests in the political system. Two women were elected to the Shura Council in 2019, up from one in 2015, and seven women won seats on municipal councils in 2016, compared with four in 2012. Fifteen women serve on the appointed Council of State.[4]

3 – Functioning of government

Government policy is controlled by the sultan and an inner circle of hand-picked advisers and senior ministers.

Oman’s legal code does not provide an effective framework for the prevention, exposure, and impartial prosecution of corruption.

The law does not provide freedom of information guarantees. Openness and transparency are limited in practice by the concentration of power and authority in a small circle around the sultan. The State Audit Institution monitors ministerial spending, conflicts of interest, and state-owned companies, but its findings are not released to the public, and it does not cover the sultan’s court or the military.[5]

4 – Freedom of expression and belief

Freedom of expression is limited, and criticism of the sultan is prohibited. There are private media outlets in addition to those run by the state, but they typically accept government subsidies, practice self-censorship, and face punishment if they cross political red lines. The government has broad authority to close outlets, block websites, revoke licences, and prosecute journalists for content violations, and it has used this authority on multiple occasions in recent years.

The government’s efforts to suppress critical news and commentary extend to online activity and social media. In June 2020, the Court of First Instance in Muscat sentenced broadcaster Adel al-Kasbi and former Shura Council member Salem al-Awfi to a year in prison for “using information technology to spread harm to public order” because of their activity on Twitter.

Islam is the official state religion. Non-Muslims have the right to worship, but they are banned from proselytising. Religious organisations are required to register with the government. The Ministry of Awqaf (religious charitable bequests) and Religious Affairs distributes standardised texts for mosque sermons, to ensure that imams stay within government guidelines.

The government restricts academic freedom by preventing the publication of material on politically sensitive topics and placing controls on contacts between Omani universities and foreign institutions.

The authorities monitor personal communications, and the growing number of arrests, interrogations and jail terms related to criticism of the government on social media has encouraged self-censorship among ordinary citizens in recent years. The new penal code issued by the government in 2018 increased the maximum penalties for slander of the sultan and blasphemy to 7 and 10 years in prison, respectively, from three years for both under the old code.

In June 2020, Awad al-Sawafi was sentenced to a suspended one-year prison term and banned from social media for a year by the Ibri Court of First Instance after being arrested and charged with “incitement” and “misuse of social media”. Al-Sawafi had posted on Twitter a comment critical of government agencies that had threatened citizens. In July 2020, Ghazi al-Awlaki was detained by the Internal Security Service in Dhofar governorate after posting on Facebook about Arab governments’ “virtual armies” on social media platforms. Al-Awlaki was held without charge or access to a lawyer for seven weeks before being released in September.[6]

5 – Associational and organisational rights

A limited right to peaceful assembly is provided for in Oman’s Basic Law. However, all public gatherings require official permission, and the government has the authority to prevent organised public meetings without any appeals process. The 2018 Omani Penal Code prescribes prison terms and fines for individuals who initiate or participate in a gathering of more than 10 people that threatens security or public order, or who fail to comply with an official order to disperse.

In the same way, Oman’s Basic Law allows for the formation of non-governmental organisations, but civic life remains limited in practice. The government has not permitted the establishment of independent human rights organisations and generally uses the registration and licensing process to block the formation of groups it sees as a threat to stability. Individual activists focusing on issues such as labour rights and internet freedom continue to risk arrest. The 2018 Penal Code includes vague clauses that allow prison terms for individuals who establish, operate or finance an organisation aimed at challenging the “political, economic, social or security principles of the state” or promoting class conflict.[7]

6 – Rule of law

The judiciary is not independent and remains subordinate to the sultan, who is empowered to appoint and remove senior judges. The sultan also chairs the Supreme Judicial Council, which nominates judges and oversees the judicial system.

Arbitrary arrest is formally prohibited but suspects arrested in vaguely defined security cases can be held for up to 30 days before being charged, and security forces do not always adhere to other rules on arrest and pre-trial detention.

Defendants in politically sensitive cases may face harsher treatment from the justice system. For example, prior to his trial in 2017 Mansour bin Nasser al-Mahrazi, a writer and researcher who was eventually sentenced to three years in prison for offences including “insulting the sultan”, spent at least two months in incommunicado detention, and the judge refused to hear defence witnesses.[8]

7 – Personal autonomy and individual rights

Most Omani citizens enjoy freedom of movement, but travel bans are often imposed on political dissidents. Foreign workers cannot leave the country without permission from their employer and risk deportation if they change employers without documentation releasing them from their previous contract. During 2020, the government periodically prevented travel internally in the country, initiated a lockdown, and imposed curfews to prevent the spread of coronavirus. These measures were implemented in line with a rise in reported cases of confection.

Omani citizens need permission from the Ministry of Interior to marry non-citizens from countries outside the Gulf Cooperation Council. Spouses or children of Omani women cannot gain citizenship. Omani law does not specifically address domestic violence and sexual harassment or criminalise spousal rape, while extramarital sex is criminalised. Women who report rape have at times been prosecuted for engaging in extramarital sex, if authorities do not believe they were assaulted. Women are at a disadvantage under laws governing matters such as divorce and child custody. The 2018 Penal Code also includes a new provision that criminalises the wearing of women’s clothing by men.

Oman’s labour policies put migrant workers at a severe disadvantage and effectively encourage exploitation. Female domestic workers, who are not covered by the Labour Law, are especially at risk of abuse by employers. The government has pursued an “Omanisation” process to replace foreign workers with native Omanis. Among other tactics, temporary visa bans for foreign workers in various professions have been issued or extended since 2013.

Despite a 2008 anti-trafficking law and some recent efforts to step up enforcement, the authorities do not proactively identify or protect human trafficking victims. The US State Department’s 2020 Trafficking in Persons Report notes that though the Omani government does investigate trafficking cases, there are few cases and convictions; seven sex trafficking cases achieved convictions in 2019, though three of them were from cases held up in the court system from previous years. Government policies limit shelter stays to victims with cases actively being investigated.[9]

[1] OHCHR:

[2] Oman: Freedom in the World 2021 Country Report | Freedom House

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

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