With a mix of condemnation, maneuver, and strategic calculation, Gulf countries are navigating the current crisis.
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In countries where politics are opaque to outsiders, municipal elections provide an important glimpse into the minds of the population. Oman’s municipal elections held on December 25, 2016, only the second in the sultanate’s history, are an excellent example. Across Oman, 731 candidates ran in the elections, of which 202 were selected as council members for four-year terms. With 623,224 total registered voters, turnout was reported at nearly 40 percent. The results of these elections reveal three important political trends in Oman. First, high turnover on the councils indicates displeasure with new austerity measures, and frustration over the insufficient power granted to council members to promote local and national development. Second, the acceptance of women politicians in Oman has grown significantly in a short time. Finally, the results indicate a desire among Omanis for more representation in governance.
Sultan Qaboos bin Said created 11 formally elected municipal councils with standardized governing structures via royal decree in 2011. Each council’s size and number of elected representatives is determined by the population of the province, and includes officials from government ministries. The elected members of the council have the power to issue opinions and make recommendations to the appropriate ministerial representative on matters of importance to the province and its residents. If a representative objects to these recommendations, the council can refer the matter to Oman’s National Council of Ministers.
While the municipal council’s role is advisory, it allows residents to address political issues through a formal institutional process in which they choose representatives. The councils effectively serve as an early warning system for dissatisfaction with government performance, allowing ministers to address grievances and thus create buy-in to the state’s institutions. They also lend insight into the politics of a country that is rapidly becoming an important regional player.
Oman’s 2016 municipal elections took place in the context of slow development and austerity measures in Oman. Qaboos created the councils after a series of protests in Oman that coincided with the Arab uprisings. To appease protesters, the sultan also reshuffled Oman’s Cabinet and issued government handouts. However, Oman’s financial situation in a period of low oil prices has forced the government to adopt unpopular austerity measures. While Oman relies on oil revenue for 77 percent of its budget, it produces less than neighboring oil giant Saudi Arabia. Because of low oil prices and foreign borrowing, the sultanate’s outstanding debt reached $19.2 billion by the end of 2016. Unemployment in Oman is around 7 percent, requiring some Omanis to wait as long as three and a half years to land a job. In addition, Oman’s government has raised the price of fuel and electricity, and increased taxes on wealthier Omanis.
In the long term, these measures may help Oman diversify its economy away from oil and support entrepreneurship in small and medium enterprises. In the short term however, they make life difficult for Omanis seeking employment as well as the financial stability necessary to marry and start families. This is likely one reason why the campaigns of successful candidates reflected a common focus on development of Oman’s infrastructure, human capital, and tourism industry. These platforms represent a move toward a diversified economy and an accelerated pace of development. Many winning candidates also have experience managing or overseeing development projects either in government or as private entrepreneurs.
Omanis are wary of the rapid changes elsewhere in the region that promised democracy but often delivered repression and violence. However, their turnout in the 2016 municipal elections indicates at least a cautious optimism that representation in local governance can be a means of progress. As an Arabic editorial in the Oman Daily newspaper following the elections noted “Most of the Arab region’s countries are in a state of political and security instability and have economic and social problems. Yet the Sultanate of Oman represents an inspiring and leading example in which development plans and the democratic experience are a steady and continuous cumulative target.”
One aspect of progress toward this target was the election of seven women, an increase from 2012 when only four women were elected. The winning women candidates in 2016 faced significant competition. In Mussanah, Rahma Al Noufli won a seat despite campaigning against 12 men. This increase in women council members was somewhat unexpected. Even as late as 2015, only one woman was elected to Oman’s Shura Council. The number of women elected, however, is less significant than the provinces from which these women originate. In 2012, all elected women were from the Muscat capital region. However, in the 2016 elections, they came from Buraimi, North Batinah, South Batinah, and Muscat. These provinces are all in the northern industrial region of Oman, and many voters in these districts have interaction with people living in and around Muscat. Women’s victories in these provinces indicate a geographic diffusion of acceptance by Omanis that women can hold political office. Additionally, only one of these seven women, Sana al-Mashari, is an incumbent. Legacy thus played a smaller role in the election of these women than other factors.
A low rate of incumbency was not only a feature of elections for women. Only 59 council members retained their seats, representing an astounding 71 percent turnover from the previous set of members. To some extent, this is because there have only been municipal elections in Oman since 2012. Members of municipal councils thus have not had sufficient time to create a legacy on which to support incumbency. More importantly, though, many of Oman’s municipal council members were frustrated over the lack of powers afforded to the municipal council. They chose not to run for a second term, leaving spots open for new members who are not traditional power players in their regions. Omani voters, in turn, gave such new representatives a chance. The result was a high turnover in municipal councils across the sultanate. In Dhofar, only three municipal council members ran for re-election. Two of them were elected out of a total 114 candidates for the council’s 24 seats. In Muscat, 17 municipal council members ran for re-election among 95 candidates. Ten of them were elected to the 26-seat council.
Despite high turnover, the elections indicate Omani citizens’ interest in greater representation in government. While turnout in the 2016 municipal elections was 10 percent lower than in 2012, many Omanis, particularly those between 25 and 35 years old, remain interested in the electoral process overall. An additional 100,000 Omanis registered for the December elections. And though voter turnout of nearly 40 percent was lower than in 2012, regionally this still represents a relatively high participation rate, as similar municipal elections in Saudi Arabia in 2015 saw only 25 percent turnout. Some decline in participation could be anticipated as the novelty of the 2012 municipal elections receded, a reality for which the Oman government tried to compensate through an awareness campaign called Lak (For You).
While Oman’s sultan holds a highly centralized leadership role, Oman’s governance was historically decentralized and remains as such. Municipal councils and similar local bodies open important opportunities for Omanis to be represented in government. Representation does more than just appease citizens. It creates stability by introducing an institutional feedback mechanism through which citizens can express their grievances. Given financial turbulence, political volatility in the Gulf region, and the age and health challenges of the sultan, this stability could play a positive role in helping Oman to navigate the current period of uncertainty.
Overall, Oman’s municipal elections reflect a population dissatisfied with austerity, but hopeful that citizen participation in governance can provide solutions. Such elections allow Oman’s leadership to ensure greater stability in a time of economic and political turmoil. They also give Omanis an opportunity to have a larger role in charting the country’s future.
is a professorial lecturer in political science at George Washington University, where he teaches courses on comparative politics of the Middle East, human rights, and gender politics.
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