Oman's elections bring hopes, doubts of institutional change

Sultan Qaboos bin Said promised to bestow new powers on the nation's assembly to tamp down Arab Spring protests, but ahead of Oman's elections tomorrow, those powers remain undefined.

Sultan Al Hasani/Reuters
A member from the voting committee casts her vote in one of the polling stations in Muscat, October 8. Omani members from the voting committee were given permission to vote early, in order to be available to observe Omani voters in polling stations around the country during election day on October 15.
Sultan Al Hasani/Reuters
A member from the voting committee casts his vote in one of the polling stations in Muscat, October 8.

Seven months after Omanis took to the streets amid a wave of Arab protests, they will be voting Oct. 15 in elections for the nation’s majlis al-shura assembly. But many don't see the election as a vehicle to bring the change they were seeking, either because of distrust of the candidates or skepticism about the assembly's ability to wield influence in a system dominated by Sultan Qaboos bin Said.

“I think it has a 50-50 percent chance to bring change," says Mohammed Abdullah Said, a businessman from the capital Muscat. "There is hope. But most [economic and political] development comes from the government and His Majesty. He has more knowledge.”

In March, as popular protests were sending tremors through neighboring Bahrain and Yemen and Omanis had taken to the streets in rare protests, Sultan bin Said announced that he would grant the majlis al-shura (literally, consultative council) additional authority as part of a package of measures designed to placate the demands of demonstrators.

“These moves were aimed at calming the situation. They wanted to prevent bigger protests [from developing],” says Salim Mohammed Al-Khadory, a social policy specialist at Oman’s Sultan Qaboos University.

With the help of an aid package from the Gulf Cooperation Council, the sultan was largely successful in tamping down the demonstrations. But the new powers promised for the majlis are as yet unknown, though a spokesman says that the newly elected assembly will be given those powers.

Record number of candidates

There is a record number of candidates seeking a seat in the assembly this year, but at least some Omanis are skeptical that assembly members and those who aspire to join them have a genuine desire to improve the country.

“All the members have personal interests. The majlis is a game,” says recent university graduate Azzan al-Hilali, adding that members don't make a sincere effort to represent the people. “They earn enough money to widen their homes, and after four years they’re finished.”

According to Sayyida Tamadhir Al-Busaidi, director of the elections department in the Interior Ministry, 1,133 candidates have registered to compete for the 84 seats in Saturday's election.

But Mr. al-Hilali says the increase in numbers is only due to a desire to hold higher government positions in the future.

“The reason why there are so many candidates is because they want to become ministers,” he says.

In an unprecedented move, the sultan selected seven former majlis members to hold minister positions in a cabinet shakeup earlier in the year.

Skepticism about the assembly

Until the majlis is given the new powers promised by the sultan, the majlis doesn’t hold explicit power; its authorities include the ability to question government ministers and review government policy. Political parties are banned in Oman and individuals run independently for various districts around the country.

Murshid Al-Harthy, a university student, said the effectiveness of the majlis depends upon the motives of the members.

“It depends on candidates [being] willing to push themselves,” he says. He adds that he won’t vote because he doesn’t know enough about the candidates.

Hamdan Al-Siyyabi, a soldier, is more optimistic about the majlis’ actions.

“It brings your voice to the government,” he says. He is prohibited from voting as are all Omanis who work in a security or defense-related field.

He would vote if he could, adding that it has become necessary for everyone to participate as the council gains the yet-unknown powers.

However, though the majlis is theoretically charged to act as an intermediary between the people and the government ministers, without real legislative power there is no mechanism to ensure the members' accountability.

“They move demands directly to higher levels. They take some of the demands, but not all of it,” said Rashid, a Ministry of Defense employee who declined to have his full name published.

Economic concerns

The protests earlier in the year focused on lack of jobs, but also touched on inflation, low salaries, corruption, and political reform. The government responded with measures funded by an aid package from the Gulf Cooperation Council. Since then, the sultan promised to create 50,000 jobs, a promise that is still being fulfilled. He also created an unemployment benefits system.

Now, many Omanis said the main issue affecting the country was not jobs but the prices of basic necessities – something that many say is not necessarily even the majlis’ responsibility.

“The issue is prices. But the economy around the world is like that,” says Abu Ahmad, a government employee who is not permitted to vote.

“Everyone is affected [by the global economy]. We are not isolated,” adds Mr. al-Siyabbi, the soldier.

Beyond prices, Omanis only expressed other practical concerns, such as traffic issues, lack of road regulation, the excess free time of the youth, and the difficulty in receiving promotions in governmental jobs.

But Dr. al-Khadory noted there is a risk that the government’s aid-reliant moves are only staving off the issues of seven months ago.

“There is a time problem," he says. "Maybe the problems will increase in the future.”

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