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Reforms in Oman: A new vision for a country

The announcement of domestic reforms in Oman will not affect its traditionally non-aligned position abroad

Ahmed Mostafa , Thursday 14 Jan 2021
Haitham Bin Tarek Al-Said
Haitham Bin Tarek Al-Said
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Sultan Haitham Bin Tarek Al-Said of Oman issued two royal decrees on Monday setting up a new legislative council for the country and establishing mechanisms to appoint a crown-prince and guarantee the stability and transfer of power.

Last year, Sultan Haitham was chosen to replace late sultan Qaboos Bin Said in a smooth transfer of power despite the fact that there had been no appointed heir. Today, the new sultan is planning political and economic reforms in the Sultanate after many years of stalemate.

One of the royal decrees issued on Monday sets up mechanisms for determining the country’s crown-prince and defining his powers, while highlighting the principle of the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary as a basis of governance in the country.

The decree emphasises the state’s role in the rights and freedoms of citizens, most notably equality between men and women and the welfare of children, disabled people and youth. It also stresses compulsory basic education, encourages the establishment of universities, promotes scientific research and emphasises the need to attract and retain talented and creative people. It outlines a new system of a local administration.

The other decree on the Council of Oman is meant to emphasise the “valuable contributions” this makes to development in the country. It is responsible for endorsing or amending laws referred to it by the government, discussing development plans, and debating the state’s general budget.

It is a sort of parliament adding to the State Financial Supervision and Administration Authority to support its role in effective governance. A section of the decree deals with following up and monitoring government performance by establishing a committee reporting directly to Sultan Haitham. The committee will evaluate the performance of ministers, deputy ministers and others in positions of authority.

One Omani source said that the decrees were not the last of those likely to be introduced. “The new sultan came with a new vision for the country, and he is gradually introducing it,” he said. The changes have been focused on internal issues so far, while foreign policy is staying on the same course as that set out by the late sultan Qaboos.

Sultan Tarek has kept to Oman’s longstanding tradition of skipping Gulf summits, and he sent his deputy prime minister to lead the Omani delegation at the summit last week in Saudi Arabia that ended the boycott of Qatar by its neighbours.

Though Oman, like the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states, welcomed the reconciliation with Qatar, it did not celebrate it in the way that Kuwait did, as the latter was involved in last-minute mediation even though it is understood that American pressure was the main factor in ending the Qatar crisis.

Oman kept up its ties with Qatar during the boycott and tried to mediate at the beginning of the crisis in 2017. When it felt that its efforts were going nowhere, it quickly retired. Some analysts at the time floated the idea that Oman could lose its role as the so-called “Switzerland of the Middle East,” renowned for keeping good relations with all and using discreet diplomacy to mediate conflicts.

Though relations between Muscat and Riyadh have not always been warm, they have always been at least cordial. Oman has not always been pleased with GCC accords pushed through by Saudi Arabia or the UAE, but it has never taken a sharply oppositional position. Oman opposed Gulf monetary union, for example, which in the end did not take place.

When it was agreed to introduce a value-added tax (VAT) in the GCC countries, Oman did not advance as quickly as the UAE and other countries. But this week it announced the introduction of the VAT from next April. Kuwait is still to announce when it will apply the VAT. Muscat took the step in line with its domestic requirements.

Unlike the rest of the GCC countries, Oman has kept up good relations with Iran, and the secret negotiations that led to the Iran nuclear deal with the West in 2015 were conducted through Muscat.

Kuwait also keeps up close-to-normal relations with Iran, but that is mainly because of internal Kuwaiti calculations rather than of its being at odds with the Saudis. Though Qatar has moved closer to Iran over the last few years, and is keeping up relations with Iran and Turkey after the end of the crisis with the other GCC members, this has largely been out of necessity.

 By contrast, Omani-Iranian relations are deep-rooted. Last week, the Iranian English-language newspaper the Tehran Times wrote that “despite the US re-imposition of sanctions against Iran, Oman is getting closer to the Islamic Republic both politically and economically. There is also the same approach adopted by Iran, as Iranian companies now prefer to conduct trade with Oman rather than the UAE, given that the UAE is complying with the sanctions. Iran is replacing some of its previous strategic trading partners such as the UAE with Oman, considering the Sultanate as an economic and trading hub.”

As a new US administration takes office next week, there is a strong possibility of resuming American-Iranian contacts. Incoming US President Joe Biden has nominated William Burns to head the CIA. Burns led the American team negotiating with Iran via Muscat.

It is thought that 2021 could also be the year for a settlement of the conflict in Yemen, with the Biden administration pressuring Riyadh to stop the war. Oman has interests in Yemen, including with regard to its national security. The Al-Mahra region is on the border of Oman and Saudi Arabia, and there were implicit accusations from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi a couple of years ago to the effect that Oman was acting as a route for Iranian assistance to the Houthi rebels in Yemen.

The new administration in Washington will want to see an inclusive settlement in Yemen that includes the Houthis and takes into account Omani and Gulf concerns as well as those of Saudi Arabia.

Oman’s new sultan might be changing the country internally in a measured and gradual way, but externally Oman is trying to keep up its peculiar position in the Gulf, the region and beyond.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 January, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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