1999 Scores

Status: Not Free
Freedom Rating: 6.0
Civil Liberties: 6
Political Rights: 6


Oman took steps in 1999 to encourage foreign investment, privatize state-owned industries, and diversify its economy to reduce dependence on oil revenue. The sultanate's program of gradual economic reform has gained importance in light of unstable oil prices and reduced Asian demand for petroleum products. Meanwhile, the sultanate's efforts to promote regional cooperation and stability resulted in improved economic, political, and cultural ties with neighboring states. Women continued to make important political advances in 1999.

Great Britain played a protective role in Oman between 1798 and 1951, when it formally recognized the sultanate's independence. The current sultan, Qabus ibn Sa'id al Sa'id, took power in 1970 by overthrowing his father in a palace coup. A five-year rebellion by left-wing guerillas opposed to the sultan's regime was crushed in 1975 with military assistance from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iran, and Pakistan. Since a formal ceasefire in 1976, the sultan, who rules by decree with the advice of a council of ministers, has faced little opposition.

In 1991, Sultan Qabus established a 59-seat Majlis al-Shura, or consultative council, selecting members from lists of nominees proposed by the country's 59 provinces. Membership was expanded to 80 seats in 1994 and to 82 in 1997. In October 1997, some 50,000 men and women, or about three percent of the population, were selected to vote in elections for the Majlis al-Shura. The government chose the council from among those elected. The council may comment or make recommendations on proposed government legislation, but it has no formal legislative power. In December 1997, the sultan appointed 41 members, including four women, to the new Majlis al-Dawla, or council of state. This council's functions and responsibilities are unclear. Together, the two bodies comprise the Majlis Oman, or Council of Oman.

Oman has maintained a gradual economic reform program despite difficulties resulting from a recent drop in oil prices and reduced Asian demand. Some 80 percent of government revenue depends on oil exports, and efforts to diversify include plans to promote tourism and foreign investment. In June 1999, the minister of trade announced the government's intention to establish a free trade zone in the southern city of Sallalah. The government also announced that it would issue instant entry visas valid for 79 hours to non-Arab businessmen beginning in August. The IMF praised Oman in July for its efforts and its handling of economic shocks, but encouraged the government to enact microeconomic reforms to broaden its tax base and cut government costs, as well as to speed up privatization.

Omani social services, public utilities, health, and education are on par with those of industrialized countries, and infant mortality rates compare well with Western Europe's. Despite economic challenges, the government resists cuts that would erode living standards or adversely affect low-income groups. In order to combat unemployment, the government has made a priority of replacing foreign workers with Omani nationals. Nearly 22,000 foreigners have been expelled in the last two years, according to the Oman News Agency. But analysts say that this effort may prove unproductive, as Omanis demand higher wages and often lack skills.

Diplomatic efforts throughout 1999 helped promote regional stability as well as economic activity. Oman signed economic and political cooperation protocols with Turkey in May and September, and a border demarcation agreement with the United Arab Emirates in May. The Omani undersecretary for tourism declared that efforts to increase tourism and foreign investment would center on the Gulf Cooperation Council countries to "minimize the negative impact of tourism on the religious, social, and cultural life of the people" in Oman.

Adding to the important gains made by women in recent years, Sultan Qabus named Khadijah bint Hassan al-Lawati ambassador to the Netherlands in September, making her the first woman ambassador from Oman. In May, a woman was appointed for the first time to the board of directors of the Omani chamber of commerce.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Omanis cannot change their government democratically. The sultan has absolute power and rules by decree. Elections to the Majlis al-Shura are neither free nor fair; Sultan Qabus chooses who is allowed to vote and who among the winners may sit on the council. There are no political parties or other formal democratic institutions. Citizens may petition the government indirectly through their local governors to redress grievances, or may appeal to the sultan directly during his annual three-week tour of the country.

The Basic Law, Oman's first de facto written constitution, was promulgated by Sultan Qabus in 1996. In theory, it provides for an independent judiciary, due process rights, freedom of the press and assembly, and prohibitions against discrimination on the basis of sex, ethnicity, race, religion, and social class. In reality, many of the laws and regulations required to implement these provisions have not been enacted.

The judiciary is subordinate to the sultan, who appoints all judges and has the final say on all rulings. Magistrate courts handle misdemeanors and criminal cases, and shari'a (Islamic law) courts handle personal status cases involving divorce and inheritance. A state security court handles matters of national security, and criminal cases as deemed necessary by the government. Security court defendants may not have counsel present, and proceedings are not made public. The criminal code does not outline due process rights, though defendants are presumed innocent and do in fact enjoy some procedural rights. There are no jury trials: a single judge tries misdemeanors; a panel of three judges tries felonies and security offenses. Defendants in national security or serious felony trials may not appeal. In April 1999, Oman introduced the death penalty for drug smuggling and production.

Police are not required to obtain warrants prior to making arrests and do not always respect legal procedures for pretrial detention. Security forces reportedly abuse detainees, but the practice is not widespread.

Criticism of the sultan is prohibited, although authorities do tolerate criticism of government officials and policies. The 1984 Press and Publication Law provides for censorship of all domestic and imported publications. However, journalists generally censor themselves to avoid harassment. Radio and television are government-controlled and offer only official views. Satellite dishes are widely available, giving citizens access to foreign broadcasts including al-Jazeera, a popular Qatar-based television channel that provides lively political debate and uncensored interviews with regional opposition activists. Uncensored Internet access is available to citizens and foreigners.

All public gatherings must be government-approved, though this rule is not always strictly enforced. All associations must be registered with the government, and independent political groups and human rights organizations do not exist.

Islam is the state religion. Most Omanis are Ibadhi or Sunni Muslim, but there is a Shi'a minority as well as small communities of Hindu and Christian citizens. Mosque sermons are monitored by the government for political content. Omani children must attend schools that provide instruction in Islam. Noncitizens, who are mainly immigrant workers from South Asia, are free to worship at churches and temples, some of which are built on land donated by the sultan. Non-Muslims may not proselytize Muslims, and non-Muslim groups may not publish religious material in the country. According to the U.S. State Department, relations between religious communities are amicable and religious discrimination is not a problem.

Despite noticeable gains in education and career opportunities, particularly for younger women, Omani women face discrimination in public and private life. According to the ministry of education, nearly 90 percent of girls eligible for elementary school enroll, and roughly half the students at Sultan Qabus University are women. Some 20 percent of civil servants are women. However, Shari'a law favors men in matters of family-related law such as inheritance, and a woman must have the permission of a male relative to travel abroad. Female genital mutilation is practiced in some rural areas.

There are no trade unions and no provisions for them under law. Employers of more than 50 workers must form a body of labor and management representatives to discuss working conditions. These committees may not negotiate wages. Strikes are illegal and do not occur. Foreign workers constitute at least 50 percent of the workforce and some 80 percent of the modern-sector workforce. Child labor is not widespread.

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