New talks reflect a broad range of regional and international developments in recent years.
Since Sultan Haitham bin Tariq al-Said took the oath of office succeeding the late Sultan Qaboos bin Said, the focus of the Omani public has turned to the first decisions that he would make upon assuming power. In a speech on February 23, the new sultan clearly outlined the most important principles and steps that would guide his governance of the country. A number of decisions that Haitham has made during his first 100 days as sultan have been informed by these principles.
Prominent Role for the Royal Family
The most significant decision made by Sultan Haitham during his first days in power was the appointment of his brother, Shihab bin Tariq, as deputy prime minister for defense affairs. This position, which had been effectively replaced by the position of minister responsible for defense affairs, had been vacant for years. However, Haitham reinstituted the position and appointed his brother to it, giving him executive powers over all of the country’s military entities, in accordance with Royal Decree Number 14/2020.
During the rule of Sultan Qaboos, Shihab was the chief of the Royal Navy of Oman for 14 years, providing him extensive firsthand knowledge of the defense ministry. Additionally, Haitham’s brother Assad bin Tariq, holds the office of deputy prime minister for international relations, affairs, cooperation. The appointment of Shihab along with Assad maintaining his post indicates the prominent role that the royal family in general, and the sultan’s brothers in particular, will play in the forthcoming political scene in Oman.
Modernization of Legislation
Haitham was never far removed from the general political and economic climate in Oman over the past two decades. The new sultan held important executive positions, the most significant of which was secretary general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs before he became minister of Heritage and Culture for nearly two decades. He also served as chairman of the Oman 2040 Future Vision Main Committee, which, as was indicated in his speech, he considers to be a significant roadmap that provides a framework for governance and development in the coming decades.
The goals of Oman 2040 would seem to require a fundamental modernization of laws and the legislative process, in addition to more international political and economic commitments as well as commitments to international laws. In a speech in January 2019, Haitham said that “the achievement of the objectives of Vision 2040 relies on knowing and understanding the link between the social, economic, and cultural changes in Oman and the drivers of global change.” Therefore, one of the objectives of the vision is to work toward complying with international standards and agreements in these areas.
Many researchers and stakeholders were encouraged by the announcement of the royal decree regarding Oman’s accession to the International Convention on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. Some viewed this decree as an indication of more legislative and legal reforms to come. Several regional and international civil society organizations also welcomed Oman’s accession to these conventions, considering it a step toward a greater commitment to human rights.
This was followed by an important step concerning workers’ rights, namely, the abolishment of Article 11 of the Foreigners’ Residence Law. This legal provision had obliged workers to obtain a no-objection certificate from their employer to move from one job to another within the private sector, which is considered by many international organizations to be a form of human trafficking. The Government Communication Center, which is affiliated with the Omani Council of Ministers, announced that this step was taken after Oman joined the International Convention on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.
Oman’s announcement of its accession to these conventions may foreshadow legislative amendments to the labor code and other relevant laws. In the same context, several members of the Shura Council have indicated that they feel that they do not play a large enough role in national decision making. In addition to their desire to make adjustments to the internal bylaws of the Shura Council, they wish to make changes that can lead to the establishment of a constitutional court, which will serve as a recourse in deciding disputes and discrepancies between the Council of Oman and the Council of Ministers over the interpretation of the law. This may call for an amendment to the Basic Law of the State, a matter that was implied by the sultan’s speech concerning changes to decision making and public participation.
Restructuring the State and Decision Making
For a long time, governmental decisions were characterized by the slow pace with which they were made and their inconsistency. The decision-making process depended on numerous governmental committees that moved slowly and was concentrated in the hands of specified individuals, leaving the elected Shura Council with only a small role. In his speech, Haitham pledged to review decision-making mechanisms. This review has led to the retirement of numerous individuals and advisors and the incorporation of the portfolios they held into existing governmental units. Additionally, Haitham established the Private Office, which reports directly to the sultan. It is in charge of preparing the sultan’s daily work schedule and is the main liaison between the Council of Ministers and different governmental ministries. In addition, the Private Office is assuming the role of documenting matters submitted to the attention of the sultan, or those about which he orders the dissemination of information, especially employment programs arising from Oman’s Vision 2040.
After numerous prominent individuals who held the rank of minister were pushed into retirement, along with undersecretaries and advisors who received extensive benefits and had unclear and sometimes nonexistent responsibilities, Haitham ordered all government institutions to force into retirement over 70% of state employees who had completed 30 years of service. State-owned enterprises were not exempt but were subject to different terms. The State Audit Institution was directed to oversee the implementation of these directives.
These initial steps were unexpected and several inspired extensive debate on social media, both in terms of their timing and implementation. Nevertheless, several prominent government officials have described these decisions as bold and unprecedented. The moves could represent a means for quickly providing additional opportunities to young people looking for work as unemployment is considered one of the main challenges that Oman has faced over the last two decades. According to official statistics, in 2018, more than 50,000 people were looking for work in Oman, and 63% held university degrees, according to statistics published on a number of websites.
The decision to consolidate the country’s sovereign wealth funds (the State General Reserve Fund and the Omani Investment Fund), as well as the transfer of ownership of most state-owned companies to the Omani Investment Authority are understood as steps toward the centralization of investment policy, better governance controls, and the reinstitution of performance evaluations, which have been absent for a number of years, particularly in state-owned enterprises. Moreover, the consolidation of pension funds – there are currently more than 11 – could occur in the near future.
More Important Decisions May Yet Be Enacted
While Haitham’s ruling style has been calm and deliberate, the steps he has taken during his first 100 days as sultan have occurred quickly from the perspective of Oman’s citizens. Many of the country’s authorities have characterized these steps as shocking and daring, introducing a different approach that has never been adopted in the government’s performance. This approach has been exemplified by the high-level committees that were formed in response to the coronavirus pandemic, which have been in continuous session and in constant communication with the media, something that was absent from government actions for years. For over two months following the spread of the coronavirus in Oman, there were weekly press briefings during which journalists posed their questions directly to officials.
Yet the adoption of these new policies does not signal that these are the last decisions that will be made. More important changes, which many Omanis await, may be yet to come.
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