Six months after his inaugural speech, Sultan Haitham bin Tariq al-Said is making good on his pledge of government reform in Oman. On August 18 he announced the selection of his first Council of Ministers, relinquishing, for the first time, the sultan’s hold on finance and foreign affairs through the appointment of ministers who will gain full authority over those portfolios.
The sultan’s measures turned the page in other ways as well, reorganizing ministries and appointing new chairmen for parastatal institutions. The removal of several ministers who had served the government for decades will put a new face on the government. However, this new government is expected to face a hard test as the current economic downturn and worrisome fiscal deficit necessitate quick results to place Oman on the path to economic recovery, expanded job opportunities, and fiscal balance.
The 28 royal decrees from Sultan Haitham mark the most significant government reorganization in 50 years, removing more than five governmental councils and merging more than 10 ministries. The changes impacted not only ministries but also separate authorities protected and used by some ministers in the last few years to control the policy direction of different state entities. This web of ministries and parastatals had been rife with conflicting authorities, as ministers appointed chief executives and gave them responsibilities that overlapped with those of other ministers.
This consolidation may be a way to decrease capital expenditure at a time of fiscal constraints. But the main aim is to streamline governmental operations by centralizing decision making, improving speed and flexibility to benefit the economy, and supporting the private sector and foreign investment.
The reforms entail several mergers. But they go even further by detailing the organizational structure of each ministry and the scope of and limitations on their activities. Decree No 75\2020 delves deep into the organization of the state’s bureaucracy, specifying the internal division of each ministry and mandating that all ministers report to the Council of Ministers within a specific period. It obligates each minister to submit a specific work plan before the end of each year and a detailed report three months prior listing all of the ministry’s achievements and obstacles encountered in executing them. This will prevent any minister from increasing the administrative work and financial burdens of the ministry without the approval of the Council of Ministers.
The old way of escaping from accountability by shifting responsibilities from one minister to another should be prevented with these royal decrees. Having an annual report about the ministry’s plans will help the national media and the elected Shura Council to observe and follow progress and achievements.
For the past 30 years, the late Sultan Qaboos bin Said ruled alone, holding the key portfolios of government solely in his own hands. The decrees issued by Haitham empower the government through the appointment of full ministers of foreign affairs and finance, as well as the appointment of a president of the board of governors of the Central Bank of Oman, the sultan’s nephew, Taimur bin Assad. These changes place greater trust in these ministers, allowing the sultan to make sovereign decisions and leaving the operational work to the government.
One outcome of these measures may be the institutionalization of Oman’s foreign policy, going beyond the sultan’s personal vision and instead reflecting the perspective of professional diplomats in the Foreign Ministry.
Haitham reinstated the Ministry of Economy, which had been abolished in 2011, and appointed a minister. This reflects the resolve of the sultan to focus on the reform of economic policies. He started by merging sovereign investment funds and then removing all ministers and officials from board positions in state companies, to avoid conflicts of interest, and stopped policymakers from managing state companies.
Emphasizing Experience and Pedigree
In some ways, the ministers chosen by Haitham echo the last government formation undertaken by Qaboos in 2011 in terms of the emphasis on experience and pedigree. But the context for the recent changes is different, and their impact is hard to predict.
Several ministers were appointed due to the long tenure of each in their respective ministries. The minister of economy served as a consultant for economic affairs in the office of the sultan, and the minister of foreign affairs was the general secretary in the ministry for years. Some of the new ministers come from academic or technocratic backgrounds. For example, the minister of economy had been the representative of the Omani Economic Association. The minister of higher education, scientific research, and innovation has been an academic at Sultan Qaboos University for decades.
The sultan also appointed some members of the elected Shura Council to the Cabinet of Ministers, integrating them into his new government. This suggests a sensitivity to public opinion as some of them have been very active in public seminars and on social media. Some old ministers, who had been subjected to criticism, retained positions but were given a remit outside the Council of Ministers, which seems to be a form of silent removal.
It has become clear that the royal family will have a greater political presence. Some prominent appointments include the sultan’s cousin, Fahad bin Mahmoud al-Said, as deputy prime minister for the Council of Ministers and the sultan’s brother, Shihab bin Tariq al-Said, as deputy prime minister for defense affairs. The sultan’s half-brother, Assad bin Tariq al-Said, remains in his position as deputy prime minister for international affairs. Haitham appointed his nephew, Taimur bin Assad, as president of the board of governors of the Central Bank of Oman and his cousin, Fahad bin Al Julanda, as president of Sultan Qaboos University. Other royal family members may have a presence in the coming months.
The most significant appointment may be that of the sultan’s oldest son, Dhi Yazan bin Haitham, as minister of culture, sports, and youth. This not only secures him a seat in the Council of Ministers but also allows him to build a direct connection with Omani youth, the key constituency for Oman’s future.
More Changes Ahead
These actions by the sultan mark the beginning, not the end, of reforms in the sultanate. Reforming the economy and restructuring the state administration is not enough to achieve the goals of Vision 2040. Over the coming months, the sultan will likely direct his attention toward updating legislation, another reform pledged in his February speech, and other changes to ensure greater political participation.