The Sultanate of Oman, the oldest independent state in the Arab world, voted this week to elect an 86 member consultative council. Oman’s location at the mouth of the Gulf at the south-east corner of the Arabian Peninsula has given the country strategic advantage to leverage diplomatic relations in a troubled region and with superpowers in the west. While the council has no role in defense, internal security of foreign affairs, it is the country’s only democratically elected legislative body and the country’s leader, Sultan Qaboos Bin Said al-Said, has granted the council greater legislative and oversight capabilities in recent years.
350,581 out of Oman’s 4.6 million-strong population, 46 percent of which are noncitizens, took part in the elections October 27 in which 597 male and 40 female candidates competed for 86 seats of the 9th Shura Council. The election will be followed by an internal vote to select its chairman.
Electronic voting machines were used for the first time in Oman to ease the voting process, including for the elderly and disabled people. Voters living outside the Sultanate cast their vote on an app launched by the Interior Ministry.
WOMEN TAKING SMALL STEPS FOR CHANGE
While the number of women candidates this year more than doubled compared to the elections in 2015, in which there were only 20 female candidates vying for the seats of the Shura Council, only 2 of the 86 elected representatives were women, up to one from last elections. While these figures seem low and insignificant, there are signs of progress being made in realizing the importance of engaging women in politics and encouraging them to take a more active role in public life - albeit rather slowly. Seven women won seats on municipal councils in 2016, up from four in 2012 and fourteen women were appointed by Sultan Qaboos to the State Council. The Sultan has led efforts for women to be better represented in employment, government, and business. A national Oman Women's Day was also implemented to improve women's visibility in public and highlight the government's resolve in promoting their position.
Oman became the first Gulf Cooperation Council state to grant women the right to vote and stand for public office in 1994. Ten years later, the Sultan appointed the Gulf’s first female minister, Sheikha Aisha bint Khalfan, the minister of the National Authority for Industrial Craftsmanship.
WHAT IS MAJLIS AL-SHURA?
Sultan Qaboos established the Consultative Council in 1991 in a drive to modernize Oman’s government structure. The Omanis gained universal suffrage in 2003. Voters were previously chosen from among tribal leaders, intellectuals and businessmen. Until 2011, the body’s purpose was only to advise the government on socio-economic issues, with no real power. Following the mass protests during the Arab uprisings, Sultan Qaboos promised the council would be given greater legislative and oversight capabilities and granted it powers to revise and propose laws and call government ministers for questioning, along with electing its own chairman.
The Shura Council is the only democratically elected legislative body among the Government institutions of the Sultanate. Legislation proposed by the Shura Council must be sent to the State Council (Majlis al-Dawla), the Upper House of parliament, whose 83 members are directly appointed by the Sultan for a term of four years. There, a proposal is discussed and might be sent back to the Shura Council with proposed amendments. If there is a disagreement about the amendments, the two bodies hold a combined vote. If a majority approves, the legislation is passed on to the government and, eventually, Sultan Qaboos for approval. The council also reviews draft laws, key government contracts, and development plans and state budgets. The Shura Council and the State Council together form the Council of Oman.