Enthusiasm wanes for Oman’s shura council ahead of elections
MUSCAT // Elections for Oman’s shura council are expected next month, the second such vote since the body was promised greater powers following Arab Spring-inspired protests in 2011.
Yet, Omanis’ enthusiasm for the council – the last vote saw a 76 per cent turnout – appears to be waning because of a perception that it has accomplished little in the past four years.
Though the council now has greater legislative and oversight capacities, its powers are limited and there appears to be little follow through on promises after candidates are elected, according to Omani citizens.
“After they get into the council they don’t do anything,” said a man in his 20s in Muscat’s Seeb district. While he still planned to vote, the October 25 elections meant little to him. “I’m not interested,” he said.
In August, shura council members made headlines for demanding harsher punishments and better regulation of petrol stations to prevent fuel being smuggled into the UAE, where prices rose after a revision in government policy.
While the shura council members intended to protect still subsidised Omani fuel, no formal proposal was submitted to the council, according to Tawfeeq Al Lawati, one of two members representing Muscat’s Mutrah district.
This, along with a recent council vote to ban alcohol sales that has not been approved by the government, illustrates how some shura council members might make populist statements, but have little ability to actually implement policy.
Even moving a proposal forward within the council itself is difficult, as Mr Al Lawati, who is campaigning for re-election, knows too well.
In 2012, when the price of oil was still high, he proposed increasing the cost of Omani fuel to global levels to save the government money on expensive subsidies.
His plan was to have 50 per cent of the savings go to Omani families with an income of 750 riyals (Dh7,154) per month or less.
But when he proposed the idea to the shura council’s economic committee, of which he was a member, there was no support.
“The reaction of the members was so negative I withdrew it,” he said. “I didn’t push it forward. The time was not right to discuss it.”
Oman’s shura council was formed in 1991 as an advisory board for Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said.
The October polls to elect the council’s 85 members elected, wil be followed by an internal vote to select its chairman. Districts of Oman with more than 30,000 residents have two representatives, while those with less have one.
All Omanis over the age of 21 are eligible to vote.
In 2011, following demonstrations over corruption and demands for social improvement, Sultan Qaboos empowered the council – the lower house of the Majlis Oman or parliament – to propose and amend legislation, summon ministers for questioning and elect its own chairman.
Legislation proposed by the shura council must be sent to the state council, the upper house of parliament whose 83 members are appointed by the sultan.
There, a proposal is discussed and might be sent back to the shura council with changes. If there is disagreement about the changes, the two bodies hold a combined vote. If a majority approves, the legislation is passed on to the government and, eventually, Sultan Qaboos for final approval.
The government must also send draft laws to the council for review. It also reviews key government contracts.
Said Ahmed Marjibi, an expert on the shura council who has worked with the body in various positions almost since its inception and occasionally advises its members, says it has undergone “massive change” even if the place has been slow.
“You don’t need to grow very fast,” he said. “You don’t need to be there in a year or 10. You know it grows a little by little, according to the education of the members and the region.”
Any Omani who is at least 30 years old and who has not been convicted of a felony or crime of “moral depravity” under local laws can stand for election. Additionally, they must have completed high school.
With just 20 women running for the next council, there has been criticism about the lack of female candidates. Only one woman was elected to the last council.
“The shura elections in Oman are generally governed by the country’s complex tribal system,” said Susan Mubarak, an Omani blogger in Salalah. “Tribal leadership has traditionally been exclusively male. Hence, the lack of females in the Majlis Al Shura.”
To become a candidate, Omanis must register with a branch of the interior ministry. A few months later, they are informed by an election board appointed by Sultan Qaboos whether they are eligible to run, according to Mr Marjibi, who said he was in favour of the board’s oversight.
“The members are all judges. They are very familiar with the laws of the country,” he said.
In June, controversy erupted after three members of the current council were not allowed to stand for re-election. Nearly 200 applications were rejected because the individuals violated the requirements for candidacy.
There are about 600 candidates in the upcoming elections. The 2011 elections had 1,133.
The last council met more than 40 times a year, said Mr Marjibi, with several committees – such as economy, health, and services and social development – meeting more often.
The council wanted to set up committees for defence and foreign affairs, but the government said those areas remain exclusively under the sultan’s control. “They said we have crossed into certain areas outside our boundaries,” Mr Al Lawati said.
Despite the slow pace, both Mr Al Lawati and Mr Marjibi feel the council is moving forward.
Mr Al Lawati cited one of the council’s successes as getting the royalty that mineral companies pay to the government increased from five per cent to 10 per cent this year. The rate was reduced from 10 per cent to five per cent in 2010.
Along with the economy, health care and education, one of the next council’s priorities is likely to be Omanisation. Mr Al Marjibi said the government cannot create enough public sector jobs for the tens of thousands of Omanis who enter the job market each year. The shura council can play a role in encouraging training for Omanis to work in the private sector, he said.
Mr Al Lawati said that while the council’s current powers are “not what we hope”, the country is going through a transition period.
“We have touched most of the major concerns of the people,” he said.
“We continue and we make proposals and to give credit to the government, they have adopted many of our suggestions.”
Updated: September 19, 2015 04:00 AM