The Sultanate of Oman is a monarchy ruled by Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said. Since the early 1970s, the Sultan has served as both the chief of state and the prime minister. Sultan Qaboos issued a royal decree in 1996 that established the Basic Law of the country. This law established a bicameral legislature in addition to clarifying civil liberties and the laws of succession. The Basic Law functions as the constitution of Oman.
History of the Constitution
- A Basic Law was issued by royal decree and promulgated on November 6, 1996 (English text, Arabic text) and functions as a constitution. It declares that the Sultanate of Oman is a hereditary monarchy whose legislation is based on Islamic law. The Basic Law may only be amended by royal decree from the sultan (Article 81).
- According to the royal decree, a judiciary committee shall be appointed to review new and existing regulations to ensure their compatibility with the Basic Law (Article 70). Additionally, laws and regulations promulgated before 1996 are still in effect unless they contravene the Basic Law (Article 77).
- The 1996 Basic Law was Oman’s first codified constitution, and was one in a series of modernization efforts carried out by Sultan Qaboos. After overthrowing his father – Sa'id bin Taymur – in a 1970 coup, the monarch has become known for his transformation of the Omani political landscape. Although absolute power still rests with the Sultan, he has considerably eased the political restrictions enacted by his father, and allowed increased (although still limited) public participation in government.
The sultan is the head of state and:
- Presides over the Council of Ministers (or may appoint someone to do so).
- Appoints and dismisses deputy prime ministers, ministers, under-secretaries, general secretaries, and governors.
- Presides over specialized councils or appoints chairmen for them.
- Appoints and dismisses senior judges.
- Holds the portfolios of defense, foreign affairs, and finance.
- Issues and ratifies laws.
- May declare a state of emergency, general mobilisation or war, and make peace in accordance with the provisions of the law.
- May sign international treaties in accordance with the provisions of the law and issue decrees ratifying them.
- May wave or commute punishments.
- Commands the armed forces.
- Is the governor of Oman’s central bank.
- Is “inviolable” and must be respected and his orders obeyed (Article 41).
Qaboos bin Said Al Said has been Sultan since July 23, 1970.
According to the Basic Law, succession will be determined by the Ruling Family Council within three days of the position of Sultan becoming vacant (Article 6). If the Ruling Family Council does not agree on a successor, the Defence Council shall confirm the appointment of the person designated by the Sultan in his letter to the Family Council. Sultan Qaboos has no children, which makes the issue of succession more uncertain.
The Prime Minister
The prime minister:
- Is currently both prime minister and chief of state.
- Does not have specified powers. If the sultan were to appoint a prime minister, he would most likely stipulate the rights and responsibilities of this position in a royal decree.
Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said has served as prime minister since 1972.
- Is directly appointed by and responsible to the sultan.
- Includes representatives from noteworthy ministries.
- Consists of 32 members, most of whom are the appointed heads of government ministries.
- Includes representatives from noteworthy ministries.
- Advises the sultan and proposes policies for economic, social, and administrative development. Proposes draft laws and decrees.
- Monitors the implementation of all laws, decrees, ordinances, decisions, treaties, agreements, and court judgments.
- Can only reach decisions when the majority of its members are present and with the approval of the majority. Its deliberations are secret.
The Basic Law bars ministers from holding interests in companies financially linked to the government. This stipulation is intended to maintain a separation between political and economic power, and to discourage corruption.
Public service ministries are required to submit reports and answer questions regarding their performance and plans before the lower house of parliament.
The sultan presides over specialized councils that assist in government-run planning and administration. The powers of these councils are defined and members appointed by royal decree. The National Defense Council works with the ministries of defense and the interior and coordinates the activities of the Royal Armed Forces and the Royal Oman Police. Other important councils are: The National Development Council, the Supreme Council for Economic Planning, and the Council for Financial Affairs and Energy Resources.
The 1996 Basic Law established a bicameral parliament known as the Council of Oman (Arabic website, English website), which includes the Consultative Council (Majlis ash-Shura) and the Council of State (Majlis ad-Dawla). They function mainly in an advisory capacity, but have some power to propose legislation. The Basic Law does not specify the powers of the respective councils, the length of their terms, the frequency of their sessions, or their rules of procedure. It states that such matters shall be established by regulation. The division of labor between the two consultative bodies is still unclear.
Plenary sessions of the Council of State and the Consultative Council are held four times a year, and laws are issued by either royal or ministerial decree. Each council prepares an annual report, which is presented to the Council of Ministers and the Sultan by its respective president.
The two councils are independent of each other financially and administratively. Government officials or civil servants are barred from participating in parliament.
The Council of State (Majlis ad-Dawla)
- Is an advisory body established in 1997, whose main function is to liaise between the government and its citizens.
- Prepares studies that help in executing development plans, and is charged with finding solutions for financial, social, and economic problems.
- Reviews the draft laws proposed by the government and presents its opinions to the sultan and his ministers in cooperation with the Consultative Council (Majlis ash-Shura).
- Has 71 seats appointed by the Sultan. Membership may not exceed that of the Consultative Council. Members are appointed for three-year renewable terms.
- Is governed by the Office of the Council of State, which consists of a president, a vice-president, and five members. The president is appointed by royal decree. The two vice presidents are elected by the council’s membership in a secret ballot. The Office meets every two weeks to examine legal, social, and economic issues.
The Consultative Council (Majlis ash-Shura)
- Is an advisory body inaugurated in 1991, which replaced the ten-year-old State Consultative Council. The council has limited powers to propose legislation. Its main function is to review and comment on draft economic and social legislation prepared by the ministries in accordance with the current Five Year Plan. It also examines drafts of regulations proposed by the sultan. It is divided into several committees.
- May summon ministers for questioning.
- Is responsible to the sultan and the Council of Ministers.
- Is composed of 84 members elected by universal suffrage for four-year terms (extended from three years in October 2003), which may be renewed once.
- Contains 84 seats distributed among 61 provinces (wilayat). Those with populations under 30,000 people have one representative and those with over 30,000 people have two representatives.
- Is headed by a president who is appointed by royal decree, and two vice presidents who are elected from among the 84 members.
Elections for the Consultative Council were last held in October 2007. The next elections will take place in 2011.
The Supreme Committee of the Consultative Council coordinates the activities of the two chambers and liaises between the parliament and the government. The main duty of the Supreme Committee is to assist the two councils in their responsibilities. Other duties include the supervision of the committees and councils and the distribution of committee reports.
The Consultative Council of Oman is a member of the Arab Inter-Parliamentary Union (AIPU).
The legal system in Oman is based primarily on the Shari’a traditions of the Ibadi school of Islam. Since 1996, royal decrees have attempted to codify laws and bring the judiciary into line with the Basic Law. Click here for the official Ministry of Justice website in Arabic.
Oman’s Basic Law provides for an independent judiciary. However, in practice the executive branch strongly influences the judiciary in Oman. The sultan makes all judicial appointments and presides over the Supreme Judicial Council.
In June 2010, Sultan Qaboos gave the judiciary a “generous grant” to aid in the modernization and renewal of the judicial system.
- The Supreme Judicial Council oversees the judiciary, formulates judicial policy, and ensures the independence of the judiciary. It is chaired by the Sultan.
Courts of First Instance (also called Preliminary Courts) rule on civil and commercial cases, as well as cases dealing with personal status, labor, and taxes. Certain specialized courts called Criminal Circuits are sometimes set up under the jurisdiction of First Instance courts. A single judge presides over these courts except in the seven courts of Oman’s largest municipalities, which require a panel of three judges.
Appeals to lower court rulings are brought before the Courts of Appeal.
Courts of Appeal
Courts of Appeal hear appeals from lower courts. There are six appellate courts, and three-judge panels preside over their cases.
The highest court in Oman is the Supreme Court, which is divided into eight chambers: civil, social, commercial, maritime, property, criminal, personal status, and injunctions. It rules on whether laws and regulations (and thus court rulings) are in line with the Basic Law of the state. The Supreme Court is currently headed by Sheikh Ishaq bin Ahmed al-Busaidi.
- Shari’a Courts have jurisdiction over matters of personal status and family law. They formerly held competence in all civil and most criminal cases, but their jurisdiction was restricted to personal status cases when the new court system was established in 2001.
A number of special courts – including the Commercial Court, the Labour Court, the Taxation Committee, and the Municipality Court – were eliminated in 1999, when the Judicial Authority Law (Royal Decree 91/99) transferred their functions to the Courts of First Instance.
- The State Security Court tries cases related to national security. The penal code has been criticized for its vague wording regarding what constitutes a threat to national security. The trials of these courts are not public, and there is no appeal of its verdicts. Defendants in this court are not permitted defense lawyers.
- An Administrative Court was created in November 1999 by the Judicial Authority Law as an independent judicial body responsible for cases involving the decisions of governmental bodies. It was established to prevent the misuse of governmental authority. The court (which includes First Instance and Appeal circuits) has the power to reverse decisions made by government bodies and can also award compensation to defendants. Another 1999 decree created the Public Prosecution Authority, which prosecutes criminal cases on behalf of the people, thereby enforcing penal law. This body functions as part of the Royal Oman Police.
- Click here for more on Oman’s 1999 judicial developments and here for a list of minor legal reforms since 2005.
The Sultan's Armed Forces (SAF) consist of the Royal Army of Oman, the Royal Navy of Oman, and the Royal Air Force of Oman. Military and security personnel may not vote. For specifics on each branch of the military, see the Omani Ministry of Information’s webpage on “Protectors of the Nation and Public Order.”
Political parties are illegal in Oman. Citizens can participate in policy-making in a limited way by attending an annual set of public meetings presided over by the sultan. These meetings are held during a period of three weeks at locations across the country, and are a way for the sultan and the Council of Ministers to connect with the people. During the sessions, citizens are encouraged (to an extent) to voice personal requests and grievances to the leadership.
Aside from these sessions, the Basic Law states that citizens have the right to address the public authorities on personal matters or on matters related to public affairs in a manner consistent with the law (Article 34). Mechanisms exist for citizens to petition the government through local councils and officials.
Elections for the Consultative Council (Majlis ash-Shura) were last held in October 2007. In the election, 632 candidates – including approximately 20 women – ran for 84 seats representing 61 provinces. Women voters outnumbered their male counterparts. Click here for a list of the winning candidates from each region.
There were 338,683 Omanis registered to vote in the legislative elections, and voter turnout was 63 percent , down from 70 percent in the 2003 elections. This was Oman’s second election based on universal suffrage over 21 years of age.
No women were elected in the 2007 legislative elections for the Consultative Council. However, women are expected to play a greater role in the 2011 elections. Since 2007, various female activists have put on workshops and other events to increase female participation in the Consultative Council.
Since candidates for the council are asked not to make speeches or campaign promises, voters often base their selections on tribal identity. Voters are only given a candidate’s name, constituency, picture, and sometimes a slogan, and must choose a candidate based on these characteristics alone. The 2007 elections were considered relatively fair, but some Omanis voiced general frustrations at the limited powers given to the Consultative Council.
Omanis living abroad were able to vote at election sites in the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Yemen, Tunisia, and Malaysia.
Upcoming Parliamentary Elections:
The next elections will take place in 2011. Electronic voting and other new measures will be introduced to prevent double voting and to simplify the election process so as to increase transparency.
Civil society in Oman is limited and weak, but the government has recently encouraged its development to some extent. There are about a dozen registered NGOs and 42 government-approved women’s associations (some partially government-funded) in Oman. The average time required to register an NGO is two years.
The government has not permitted the establishment of independent human rights organizations, but has recently formed a government-affiliated National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR).
- The main professional association is the Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
- Royal Decree 74/2006 on July 8, 2006 legalized trade unions, which were previously banned. The Ministry of Manpower was tasked with creating regulations for peaceful strikes and other union activities.
- Citizens are not permitted to establish associations whose activities are secret, harmful to the state, or of a military nature (Article 33 of the Basic Law).
- Personal freedoms are guaranteed by the Basic Law and regulated by separately established laws.
- The Basic Law states that all citizens are equal before the law, regardless of gender, origin, race, language, religion, sect, or social status (Article 17). However, citizens of African origin have reported employment discrimination, and women suffer from legal and social discrimination.
- According to the law, arbitrary arrest and detention are prohibited (Article 18). In practice, the police are not required to obtain an arrest warrant in advance. Government authorities must obtain court orders to hold suspects in pre-trial detention, but the police and security services regularly disregard these procedures.
- The Basic Law guarantees freedom of assembly (Article 32). However, all public gatherings require government permission. The state has the authority to prevent organized public meetings without any appealS process.
- The Basic Law provides for freedom of opinion and expression within the limits of the law, which prohibits individuals or the media from criticizing the sultan. A vaguely stated constitutional provision states that it is illegal to print or publish material that may cause public discord, violate the security of the state, or abuse a person’s dignity and rights (Article 31). Public cultural events require approval by the appropriate governing authority. Most organizations avoid controversial issues to ensure that their events are approved. Academic freedom is also restricted by the government.
- Freedom of religion is respected, provided that it does not disturb “public order and accepted standards of behavior.” Non-Muslims have the right to worship, although non-Muslim religious organizations must register with the government and non-Muslims are banned from proselytizing. The government requires all imams to preach sermons within the parameters of standardized texts distributed monthly by the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Endowments.
- No person may be subjected to physical or psychological torture. No statement is valid if it is established that it has been obtained as a result of torture. The rights to counsel, appeal, and litigation are protected. However, in practice many of the civil liberties guaranteed by the Basic Law are not implemented.
- The Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor of the U.S. Department of State provides a comprehensive 2009 Human Rights Report exploring personal liberties in Oman.
Political Party Laws
- Political parties are illegal.
- The Basic Law (Article 34) states that citizens have the right to address the public authorities on personal matters or matters related to public affairs in a manner consistent with the law. Mechanisms exist for citizens to petition the government through local government officials.
- Prior to the 2003 Consultative Council elections, the sultan issued a royal decree that led to the unveiling of a new Electoral Law (English text, Arabic text). The new regulations eliminated the requirement that voters and candidates be approved by the government to complete voter registration. Furthermore, the decree extended suffrage to all Omani nationals over 21 years of age (the previous minimum voting age was 30), including Omanis living abroad. Prior to this decree, only 25 percent of the population was able to vote.
- Elections are held by majority vote. No matter how many candidates compete in an electoral district, those receiving the greatest number of votes win. No minimum percentage of votes is required.
- Naturalized Omanis are not eligible to participate in the electoral process. Military and security personnel are also banned from voting.
- Since a royal decree in 1997, women have been able to stand for election in the Consultative Council.
Law on Associations
- The Basic Law guarantees freedom of association (Article 33). However, associations must have legitimate objectives and conform to the Basic Law. Citizens are not permitted to establish associations whose activities are secret, harmful to the state, or of a military nature.
- Associations must be registered with the government, and the Ministry of Social Development must approve their establishment and their by laws. Due to the vague wording of the law governing NGOs and the reluctance of the government to allow non-governmental entities to function in the country, many associations are kept waiting for years when they apply for a license.
- Labor unions were banned in Oman until 2006, when the government pledged to amend its labor regulations as part of the free trade agreement between Oman and the United States. This pledge led to a 2006 royal decree in which the sultan amended the Labor Law and allowed for the formation of the Sultanate’s General Labour Union. This move has been praised by international labor organizations, and more than 70 labor unions have formed in Oman since the announcement. See the Ministry of Manpower website for more on union creation in Oman.
- The 1984 Press and Publishing Law enables the government to censor publications that are “deemed to be politically, culturally, or sexually offensive.”
- The state owns and controls most local radio and television companies, which are operated by the Ministry of Information. Journalists generally do not criticize the sultan or his policies.
- The Private Radio and Television Companies Law was issued by royal decree in 2004 to regulate the establishment of private radio and television stations, which were previously prohibited.
- Private print publications are permitted, but many of them accept government subsidies and practice self-censorship.
- Content of domestic websites and access to foreign sites is controlled by the sole official Internet Service Provider, the Oman Telecommunications Company (Omantel), established in 1997. The minister of transport and telecommunications is the chairman of the board of Omantel.
- Click here for a report by the International Research & Exchanges Board on the state of the media in Oman.
Personal Status Law
- The first Personal Status Law (Arabic text) was decreed in June 1997 (Royal Decree No. 32) and aimed to unify court rulings on issues such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance. Criticism regarding inconsistency in court rulings initiated this initial codification of the law.
- The Basic Law prohibits gender discrimination (Article 17). However, the Personal Status Law (which is similar to Personal Status laws in other Muslim countries) allocates different rights to men and women. For example, it stipulates that although men can marry non-Muslim women, women cannot marry non-Muslim men. Under the law, a husband can divorce his wife without going to court, but must then allow the woman to keep her dowry and a sum of money (called mu’akhar as-sadaq) stipulated for this purpose in the prenuptial agreement. Women may divorce their husbands if they agree to surrender their dowry.
- The Personal Status Law requires a woman to gain permission from her father, her husband, or a male family member to travel outside the country.
- Under the law, women receive half as much inheritance as their male relatives, and those married to non-citizens may not transmit citizenship to their children.
- In April 2005 a decree was issued allowing Omanis to marry citizens of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states without a permit from the government. In the case of those who do not hold GCC citizenship, permission must be obtained from the Ministry of the Interior prior to the marriage. This requirement was originally designed to encourage Omanis to marry fellow citizens.
- Shari’a courts hear Personal Status cases.
- The Labor Law was initially codified in 1973. The most recent amendment of the law was decreed in April 2003 (English text, Arabic text). The 2003 law removed a ban on workers’ strikes and announced clear guidelines on labor wages and hours.
- Oman joined the International Labor Organization (ILO) in 1994. Since joining, it has ratified four of the eight ILO labor standards, which include abolishing forced labor and establishing a minimum working age.
- Also in 1994, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) began “an Omanization of the workforce.” As a result of the Omanization policy, employers are prohibited from hiring non-citizens unless the foreigners hold a work permit from the government. The 2003 law attempted to further encourage Omanization by making it difficult for foreign nationals to obtain these permits (Article 18). In recent years, the government has also begun training Omanis for positions that would otherwise go to expatriates already in possession of the requisite skills. The government tracks Omanization statistics in a variety of sectors. The number of expatriate workers in Oman was estimated at 1,065,158 in March 2010, out of a total population of 2,967,717. Click here for more information on Omanization.
- The Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor under the U.S. Department of State reports that certain provisions of the Labor Law (such as prohibiting forced labor, and allocating jobs for the disabled) are sometimes not enforced.
- On November 23, 2008 Sultan Qaboos announced the enactment of an Anti-Trafficking Law (English text, Arabic text). Soon after the announcement, the Omani government established a National Committee for Combating Human Trafficking. This committee has since produced a National Plan for Combating Human Trafficking (English text, Arabic text).
- By law, women are allowed to own land. In April 2010, the government began an initiative to allocate more land for women in response to criticism regarding unequal land ownership in the country.
- In 2007, a committee composed of representatives from the Manpower Ministry, the Ministry of Finance, the Royal Oman Police, and the Oman Chamber of Commerce and Industry decided to grant partial amnesty to hundreds of expatriate workers who have overstayed their visas in Oman. Those who arrived in Oman before 1993 and who have overstayed their visas will be allowed to leave the country without paying the charges and fines resulting from their illegal status. If they choose to remain in Oman, they must pay all the accumulated fees in order to legalize their status in the country. Click here for more information.
- The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (CCPR): Not Ratified.
- The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR): Not Ratified.
- The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT): Not Ratified.
- The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) on January 2, 2003.
- The Convention of on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) on February 7, 2006 with reservations for provisions that do not accord with Islamic law or Omani legislation, and for Article 9, paragraph 2, which grants men and women equal status with respect to a child’s nationality. Click here for Oman’s additional reservations.
- The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) on January 8, 1997 with reservations for provisions that do not accord with Islamic Law or the Sultanate’s legislation, and reservations to Articles 14 and 30 that grant children freedom of religion.