Oman – 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.
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.
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.
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.
Article 116 of the Omani Penal Code also criminalises the establishment of political parties. The penalty for establishing or participating in political activities can reach up to 10 years in prison.
Non-citizens, who make up about 44% of the population, have no political rights or electoral opportunities.
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
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. ِArticle 121 of 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 the security or public order, or who fail to comply with an official order to disperse.
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.
4 – Freedom of expression and belief
Freedom of expression is limited, and criticising the Sultan or his family is considered a crime. 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 news and critical comments extend to online activities and social media. In May 2022, the public prosecutor referred journalist Mukhtar Al-Hanai to trial for a tweet addressing an administrative corruption issue.
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 issuance of the Internal Security Agency law has led to the legislation of personal communications surveillance. According to complaints received by the OCHR, the security agency uses advanced software to monitor targeted individuals. When a person is summoned for interrogation, they are asked to bring their mobile/s with them. Even if this person deletes conversations and applications, the internal security agency or the investigating authority uses advanced technology that enables them to recover deleted conversations or programs/applications.
5 – 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.
6 – 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.