The promulgation of Oman’s new State Basic Law, the Constitution of the Sultanate of Oman on January 11, 2021, has raised the expectations of the Omani people regarding the legislative and oversight powers to be granted to the Omani Council in its two chambers: the state-appointed council and the elected Shura Council. Of particular interest are the powers to be exercised by the Shura Council as a direct representative of the Omani people.
Since the Shura Council’s establishment in 1991, the Omani people have long awaited its transformation into a parliament with full powers. In response to mounting popular protest, the Shura Council was granted increased constitutional rights in 2011. However, no significant developments of its legislative or oversight powers have occurred since. Oman’s Council law number 7/2021, specifying the Shura Council’s powers and the mechanism of its actions, has since thwarted these hopes. As Oman’s executive government consolidated control as the sole decision maker for public policy and the drafting of laws and legislation, the Shura Council’s powers and authority to represent the Omani people declined sharply. Contrary to expectations, the law granted expanded powers to the Omani Cabinet, instead of granting them the ability to elect representatives of the people. Most importantly, all the powers previously granted to the Shura Council— in accordance with the State Basic Law of 2011—as constitutional entitlements, have now become statutes that no longer amount to constitutional rights.
The Oman Council law granted appointed and elected members some parliamentary tools and powers, such as proposing laws, and stipulated a deadline for the executive government to respond to the parliament’s proposals. In the past, there had been no such time window during which the executive government was obligated to respond—allowing the government to ignore the Shura Council’s proposed laws. Even though the executive government recognizes that parliament’s constitutional right to propose laws, it typically ignored these proposals—as an executive response was not required by law.
According to Oman Council Law No. 7/2021, only the approval and amendment of legislation put forward by the executive government is expected from the Oman Council, while the executive government has the right to reject a proposed law submitted by the Omani Council within a year of its submission. This situation is viewed by Yaqoob Al-Harthy, the Deputy Chairman of the Omani Shura Council, as a "disaster."1 He explained that the law gave the executive government the right of rejection, which was not included in the previous State Basic Law. As a result of this legal development, the executive government now has a year from the submission of proposals by the Oman Council—both the elected Shura Council and state-appointed bodies—to approve and respond to the elected body, or to reject the proposal in its entirety. Al-Harthy considers granting the executive government the right to reject a proposal issued by the Oman Council "a fabricated right and a violation of the State’s Basic Law and contrary to the attained rights received by the Shura Council in 2011." The text of the amendments to the articles of the State Basic law of 2011 establishes that the executive government must send back the proposals submitted by the Oman Council on the basis that they will be enacted and become laws. The government had no right to reject the laws proposals of the Shura Council. "Now the government has created the right to reject legislative proposals,” Al-Harthy added.
The Legislative Role of the Oman Council
The State Basic Law granted the Shura Council several constitutional rights in 2011 as a result of the popular demands during demonstrations and sit-ins sweeping the country during the Arab Spring period. These authorities included the ability to approve and amend laws proposed by the government, as well as the right to propose laws. These powers are stipulated in the current State Basic Law 7/2021 in Article (72), and are the only powers set forth in that article. Though the exact terminology for adopting, amending, and proposing laws seems unchanged, there is a "serious issue," Al-Harthy says, “the following phrase was included in the State Basic Law “as indicated by the law”.” Harthy explains that the status of these rights have been diminished to the level of legal rights instead of constitutional rights and to him, “this is the root of the problem in the legislation.” The Oman Council law was issued as an ordinary law and not part of the Omani Constitution/State Basic Law.
Among the popular constitutional gains of 2011 was the formation of the Shura Council as a constitutional right. The constitutionalized procedure set forth that the Speaker of the Shura Council and his deputies were to be elected on the basis of constitutional rights. However, this right was abolished under the new 2021 law, and the election of the speaker and his two deputies became stipulated by the Oman Council law. Consequently, the constitutional right to these elections was removed from the State Basic Law. It may appear that there is no difference between the two scenarios as long as the speaker and his two deputies are still elected, but there is an important difference. As Al-Harthy mentioned, before Shura Council elections were a constitutional attainment that the laws could not violate, and now it has become a legal attainment that can be amended overnight.
Parliamentary Mechanisms and the Secrecy of the Shura Council Sessions
Oman Council Law number 7/2021 stipulated that “the sessions of the State Council and Shura Council dedicated to discussing plans for development projects and the state’s general budget must be secret.” This clause settles a debate previously subject to an annual vote by the members of the Council, ruling in favor of the secret sessions. While all sessions of the Shura Council were public, unless the Shura Council decided otherwise, the new law imposes that the Shura Council keep some sessions a secret—regardless of the Council’s desires. Similar to other prerogatives, this was originally a protected constitutional right and was minimized to basic legislation. The Shura Council has also enjoyed the right to summon ministers of public services for testimony before the Council. Previously, a constitutional right and a hearing could be upon the request of only five members. However, this authority is no longer protected by constitutional immunity—narrowed by the new Oman Council Law, it is now subject to much stricter restrictions. The law now requires the approval of 50 percent of the members of the Council, in addition to a proposal submitted by five members. In the opinion of members of the Omani Shura Council, "a constitutional right was abolished and has become a complicated legal right.”
The new Oman Council law defines only seven mechanisms for the Shura Council to perform as its duties, namely: urgent statements, subpoenas, letters of intent, parliamentary questions, requests for conferences, conferences on ministerial statements, and inquests. With regard to the mechanism of inquests, the law stipulates that all sessions that conduct the inquest should be secret. It also prohibits the publication, disclosure, or declaration of any of inquest-related events—whether to the traditional media or on social media networks. Previously, the request process for inquest was a protected constitutional right, if signed by fifteen members it is considered legally sound and enforceable. The reformed inquest power is set forth in the Oman Council Law promulgated by decree number 7/2021 with two lingering issues. The first problem is the fact it has been reduced in status from a constitutional right to legislative issue, and secondly, the inquest procedures have become more constrained, and it has become subject to the oversight of the office of the Shura Council or the legislative committee. Now, the complex process of requesting an inquest may exceed two months, before it is presented to the members of the Council where 50 percent must approve. Under the previously protected constitutional version, fifteen members could convene the inquest. Now, fifteen members have the right to request an inquest, but they no longer have the right to convene the inquest.
Prior to the issuance of the State Basic Law and the Law of the Oman Council, official statements declared that the Basic Law emphasized the role of the state in guaranteeing improved rights and freedoms to citizens and increasing the oversight of executive government administration within the framework of the governance of the state institutions. However, the new State Basic Law number 6/2021 establishes a committee directly under the Sultan to oversee the performance of ministers, deputy ministers, and other government officials; in addition to the state's financial and administrative oversight apparatus evaluating the performance of its governance role. But the State’s Basic Law, the Constitution of Oman, did not grant the Oman Council any oversight powers, rather these powers were transformed into follow-up mechanisms. As such, the government once again becomes the watchdog of its own performance without the presence of an outside entity for monitoring or accountability. The law also minimized the parliamentary mechanism represented by the fact-finding committee, included in the internal bill of the Shura Council as one of the mechanisms that can play a monitoring role independent of the government.
According to Saeed Al-Hashemi— Editor of the book The Omani Spring, and prominent activist in the 2011 demonstrations—this law diminishes and constrains the Shura Council’s legislative authority.2 Despite the wide reception of the Council’s legislative powers as a sham previously, it has been reduced to become a "thing" with an unknown function. It oversees, it observes, but without any mechanism for evaluation and enacting change. As for the legislative, oversight, and accountability missions, Al-Hashemi says, that they have become "apparatuses" in the hands of the head of state. This issue begs the following question: "How can one entity legislate, execute, and monitor itself?"
During the ninth national elections in 2019, about 350,000 voters cast their votes at polling stations, constituting about 49 percent of registered voters. This muted participation rate reflects Omanis' lack of faith in the feasibility of electing officials without the proper tools to represent the citizenry. If the Shura Council is granted more effective powers this will motivate Omanis to broader political participation, whether within the scope of elections or elsewhere.
The Omani government cannot continue monopolizing the power and decision-making processes. Oman is no longer a rentier state, providing all services and bestowing all privileges to its citizens. Oman faces an economic crisis, budget deficits, and declining growth rates, in addition to the government's plans to impose taxes and austerity measures, such as layoffs and forced retirements. Omanis will demand greater influence in public policymaking as these policies increasingly affect their livelihoods and the future of younger generations with their own demands and visions for political participation. What Omanis need, at this stage, are elected councils with real parliamentary powers, and not just a continuation of advisory councils. They want councils that represent all citizens and whose elected members can bring about real change. The councils they want are ones that can hold the government accountable if it does wrong, withhold confidence in it, and enact laws and legislation that not only represent and are approved by the citizens, but that the government respects—given that the elected Shura Council is a state institution enjoying power sharing with the appointed government.
Rafiah Al Talei is the contributing Arabic editor for Sada in Carnegie’s Middle East Program, follow her on Twitter @raltalei
1 The interview with Yaqoub Al-Harithi, member of the Shura Council and the representative of Al-Kabil county was conducted on February 10, 2021.
2 The interview with the scholar and political activist Saeed Al-Hashimi was conducted on January 30, 2021.