Two nights ago a Royal Decree by the Sultan of Oman Qaboos announced amendments to the Basic Statute of the State – the closest legal document the country has to a constitution – giving the Shura (Consultative) and State councils a say in the way the country is run. The new laws give both houses new legislative and monitoring powers.
The Sultanate of Oman has had its share of protests and public outcry earlier in the year pushed the Sultan to do a major reshuffle of the Cabinet of Ministers, increase salaries, and grant thousands of scholarships to send Omanis to study abroad, amongst other reforms. However, the biggest change the Sultan promised, in March 2011, was issuing an amendment to the Basic Statute of the State to empower the Shura Council and the State Council with legislative and monitoring powers. This amendment finally came out on Wednesday 19 October, 2011.
This biggest amendment to the Basic State allows the Shura Council (an 84-member elected council) and the State Council (an appointed council) to have a more significant role in the legislative procedure. The collective capacity of the two councils forms the Council of Oman, which now has the exclusive authority for submitting draft laws to the Sultan after receiving proposals for these from the Cabinet of Ministers.
Previously the Cabinet of Ministers was the body responsible for this procedure, but according to the new text of the Basic Statute of the State the Cabinet of Ministers must pass draft laws to the Council of Oman who can review it and amend it before submitting it to the Sultan. The Cabinet of Ministers cannot bypass the Council of Oman even when it comes to laws that require expedite treatment as the Council of Oman will still have to see it but will have a limited time frame to review the document before submitting it to the Sultan.
The amendment to the Basic Statute of the State also added new authorities to the Council of Oman to review draft development plans and the annual budget, and the Cabinet of Ministers is required to look into the comments made by the Shura Council on the entry into any international treaty that has an economic or cultural impact before signature.
There are many other amendments such as a minimum qualification requirement for members of the Shura Council and further authorities on questioning Ministers, but a major amendment involves the appointment of the next Sultan; prior to the amendments the Basic Statute of the State required the Defence Council to enforce the secret will of the Sultan on who should rule next if the Ruling Family fails to agree within the period of three days after the death of the Sultan on that matter. The new amendment makes the Defence Council work with the Head of the State Council, the Head of the Shura Council, and the Head of the Supreme Court along with two of his deputies to enforce that will.
The reaction to the amendments of the Basic Statute of the State has been somewhat mixed, a great number of people are optimistic about the new changes as it seems to them the Shura Council will finally be able to have an influence in the decision making process, while some people on the other hand are disappointed that the opinions of the Shura Council are still not truly binding on the government and the Sultan still has the authority to reject the opinion of the Shura Council and take that of the Cabinet instead.
A discussion board commentator going under the name of Firas Al Riyami [ar] posted the following:
السلطان بهذا سيعطي خارطة طريق لعمان جديدة..مكملا ما بداه من ورش الاصلاحات التي كانت تنم بالاساس القطع مع سياسات العهد الماضي..والاوراش الكبرى.
اليوم على الشعب ان يكون في مستوى التطلعات وفي مستوى الوعي الذي يؤهله لانجاح هذا الرهان..الان على الشباب والشعب بصفة عامة الانخراط في المؤسسات والجمعيات لاجل طرح صوته ومشاركة سياسية فعليه..
على الشعب ان يساهم في تعزيز دولة المؤسسات و يساهم في تعزيز دورها و تفعيلها و تأسيس مؤسسات تشاورية فعلية قوية.
Another commentator on the same discussion board going by the name ‘Ibrawi Omani' didn't share the same optimistic view saying [ar]:
لا يجوز إستجواب نواب رئيس الحكومة
لا يجوز إستجواب وزراء الوزارات السيادية
لا يجوز مناقشة الإتفاقيات الأمنية والعسكرية والسياسية
رأي المجلسين غير مُلزِم للحكومة
You can't question the deputies of the head of the government.
You can't question ministers of sovereign ministries.
You can't discuss security, military, or political treaties.
The opinion of the two councils are not binding on the government.
It will be very hard to predict what approach the Sultan will take when dealing directly with changes requested by the Shura Council and there are still other significant issues about the elected members of the Shura Council as many still believe that tribal pressures force people to vote for their tribal leaders instead of voting for capable people who they can really trust and support.
The Shura Council in its current form is also still not well equipped for reviewing legislation or international treaties as the members of the Council do not have staff members or even an office to go to and study the legal documents they are expected to comment on.
The majority of Omanis do not seem to be bothered with the fact that the exact scope of the authorities of the Shura and State Council were unknown, as the country was alive with excitement about the recent elections for the membership of the Shura Council, probably due to the assumption of many people that the future government will be selected from among members of the Shura Council. The result was that the country was swept with billboards of candidates and advertisements filled the newspapers and the Internet, and on Sunday the results came out with the names of the 84 members of the new Shura Council of Oman.
To me personally, the results seemed somewhat anti-climatic as it seems that the majority of people who got elected were tribal leaders who have always been elected to the Shura Council due to the tribe influence in many regions in Oman. Only one women made it to the council, and as we do not know what the authorities of this council will be yet, we really cannot expect much of them yet.
Blogger Mohammed Al Shahri wrote about the elections in a positive [ar] light saying:
Blogger Mahfif [ar] from Dhofar, on the other hand, believed that tribal influence was very significant in these results:
The elections took place before the people got to know the exact scope of authority the Shura Council now has, and the new amendments require the members now to have at least a high school certificate as a minimum qualification requirement – this could mean that a number of of elected members who are old tribal leads with no educational qualification might have to be removed, but that it is still not confirmed.
We are going through interesting times in the Sultanate of Oman as it tries to draw a balance between its gradual approach in making political and cultural change and the public's desire to have a change right here and right now.