Oman has long been an outlier among its neighbors in assuring that economic development does not occur at the expense of its natural environment. It has done so even though the Omani economy is heavily reliant on the extraction and production of hydrocarbons, such as crude oil, natural gas, and liquefied natural gas, which carries significant environmental risks. But, since the passing of Sultan Qaboos bin Said in January, it is unclear if this environmentally conscious profile will continue to be prioritized alongside the economic development agenda, as Oman undergoes a leadership transition and faces mounting economic pressures.
The prolonged collapse of oil prices since mid-2014, exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, has left the new sultan with limited options to counter Oman’s unprecedented economic downturn. In August, Sultan Haitham bin Tariq al-Said issued 28 royal decrees seeking governmental restructuring by establishing, removing, and merging institutions. On the environment and climate change front, Royal Decree No. 106/2020 replaced the Ministry of Environment and Climate Affairs with the Environment Authority. All climate affairs were transferred to the Civil Aviation Authority, while the Environment Authority oversees environment-related issues. While the environment and natural resources are integral parts of Oman’s Vision 2040 priorities, the shift in authorities raises the question of whether Oman’s ongoing economic downturn will shift the focus from environmental sustainability and climate action.
The Omani government’s interest in protecting its natural environment and wildlife goes back to 1974 when the Office of the Advisor for Conservation of the Environment was established in the royal court. Its mandate was expanded in 1979 to include pollution control through the establishment of the Council for Conservation of the Environment and Prevention of Pollution. In 1985, conservation of water resources was added to the environment profile and the first Ministry of Environment was established. Yet, the function of the ministry remained separate from the Council for the Conservation of the Environment, which was also reformed in 1985 to become the Council for Conservation of the Environment and Water Resources. In 1991, the Ministry of Environment and the Council for the Conservation of the Environment were merged with the Ministry of Regional Municipalities to become the Ministry of Regional Municipalities, Environment, and Water Resources. Oman’s environmental regime is primarily regulated by the Law on the Conservation of the Environment and Prevention of Pollution (Royal Decree 114/2001), while three royal decrees and two ministerial decisions further regulate wildlife protection and nature conservation.
Although Oman has long been a party to many international climate treaties, such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, signed in 1992 and ratified in 1994, the domestic inclusion of climate-change policies alongside environmental policies was mainly triggered by the devastating impacts of Cyclone Gonu that hit the country in 2007. After the cyclone, environmental work was separated from the Ministry of Regional Municipalities, Environment, and Water Resources through the establishment of the Ministry of Environment and Climate Affairs via Royal Decree 90/2007. The responsibilities of the ministry were detailed in Royal Decree 18/2008, and a Directorate General of Climate Affairs was set up to evaluate vulnerability and risks resulting from climate change and intensify work in the fields of adaptation and mitigation of climate change at the national and international level. Ministerial Decision No.18/2012 issued regulations for the management of climate affairs, to be overseen by the Directorate General of Climate Affairs. These regulations require project operators to include a climate affairs chapter in their Environment Impact Assessment, where they detail how they align project operation with climate regulations both in terms of mitigation and adaptation.
In 2019, Oman ratified the Paris Climate Agreement and issued a national strategy for climate change mitigation and adaptation. While this is a progressive step toward climate policy implementation at a level where climate action supports economic growth, the strategy has not been made publicly available, bringing into question its credibility and transparency. Additionally, the timeline for its implementation has not been specified. Further, the recent subsuming of the Ministry of Environment and Climate Affairs into the Environment Authority and the transfer of climate affairs to the Civil Aviation Authority might interrupt the country’s progress toward advancing and implementing its national climate strategy. While the Civil Aviation Authority is well known for its effectiveness observing and providing early warnings for extreme weather events, such as cyclones, its new responsibilities point to an expanded role to include broader climate-related issues, including both mitigation of and adaptation to climate change.
Further, the dissolution of the Ministry of Environment and Climate Affairs, which had representation at the Council of Ministers, might jeopardize progress in implementing Oman’s national climate strategy and disrupt achieving the country’s 2040 Vision ambitions to align climate and environmental policies with other economic development policies because of the Environment Authority’s lack of representation at the level of Council of Ministers. In addition, if not coordinated properly, the division of the oversight of environmental issues and climate affairs between two different entities might encourage overlap or policy fragmentation among environment, climate, and energy policies, especially since energy policy issues, such as renewables, are overseen by a third entity, the Ministry of Energy and Minerals (formerly the Ministry of Oil and Gas).
At the same time, the downgrading of the Ministry of Environment and Climate Affairs into the Environment Authority and transferring its climate affairs duties to the Civil Aviation Authority might help reduce pressure on the government budget in the short term during the economic crisis. However, the sultanate will face challenges to ensure that reviving its economy does not come at the expense of protecting its natural environment or push climate affairs down in the government’s agenda. Overcoming such challenges can be done through enhancing coordination between energy, environment, and climate entities to avoid environmental and climate-related issues going unattended or being addressed in an inconsistent manner. Further, including representation from the Environment Authority and Civil Aviation Authority at the Council of Ministers will ensure their participation in high-level decision-making processes so that Oman’s economic development is both environmentally sustainable and climate resilient in the long term.