June 4, 2012: Muscat, Oman (Part 2)

After our incredible lunch at HE Sheikh Abdulla’s house, we returned to the hotel for a meeting with Ahmad Ali Al-Mukhaini, who I have a previously described as a liberal reformer and an expert on and consultant to the Omani government. Ahmad comes from a strong political background and is a very interesting man. He has served as a political advisor to American ambassador, previously headed Oman’s equivalent to the Congressional Research Service in the US, and current serves as an independent researcher for both the United Nations and various Omani organizations.

Ahmad’s discussion centered around three main topics, here listed in order of the depth in which he discussed them: the political institutions of Oman, the Arab Spring (or the “Omani Spring” as it will be referred to here), and Sharia Law. And so it is in my relaying of Ahmad’s lecture that I get to share you with an incredibly interesting crash course in Omani government (as promised!), just as we received in from him.

In Oman, the tribe is the only social organization structure in existence, as parties and interest groups do not exist. As a result, just how parties and interest groups are utilized in American governing, the Omani government uses the tribe as an important channel for governing and politics.

The Sultanate of Oman (the country’s full name) is a unitary Islamic absolute monarchy. At the head of Omani government is Sultan Qaboos al-Said bin-Said who, as I’ve already mentioned, is the prime minister, chief executive, head of state, and supreme ruler of Oman. In the end, all final decisions come back to the Sultan. However, there are two other bodies of government that provide the Sultan with guidance and advise him: the Council of Oman, which can be thought of as Oman’s legislative branch, and the Council of Ministers, which is equivalent to Oman’s executive branch.

The Council of Oman is bicameral with an upper house that is appointed, called the State Council or the Majlis A’Dawla, and a lower house that is elected, called the Majlis A’Shura. Members of the Council of Oman technically stand independently of one another, but often they represent the various tribes that I discussed above. In the past, tribal leaders accounted for almost the entire Council of Oman, but that is changing now as more independent politicians, including women, stand for elections. Legislative power technically lies with the Sultan, so the Council of Oman, specifically the Majlis A’Shura or lower house, is mainly advisor and represents consultation sand representation. The terms of both houses last for four years, but there is no limit to the number to the number of times a member can be reelected or reappointed. In the Majlis A’Shura, every district with a population of 30,000 or higher gets two members, and all the others receive one. Today, there are 84 members of the lower house, all of whom were either the highest vote getter or second highest vote getter in his or her district. In turn, the appointed chamber, or the State Council, must be smaller in membership than the lower chamber (which is why it currently has 83 members). There are significantly more women in the upper house (14 out of the 83 as compared to 1 out of 84 in the lower house). The State Council is not district oriented, meaning the Sultan can appoint anyone he chooses. As a result, the upper chamber has come to represent Oman’s “minorities” who might not be elected to the lower house, including women who are not being elected to the Majlis A’Shura despite standing for election. Since the Omani spring, the State Council, or the upper house, has become more powerful in reaction to the Omani Spring, often being called “the gateway to the Sultan.”

The Council of Ministers is the executive authority of Oman and can be compared to the Cabinet in the United States. They are responsible to the Sultan and the Sultan alone. There is no specific length for the terms of the members of the Council of Ministers, as they serve at the pleasure of the Sultan. There are 26 ministers in Oman, each with a specific domain such as Foreign Affairs, Religious Affairs, the Interior, etc. Recently, the Council of Ministers has become more transparent since the Omani Spring. Each of the ministers is supported a council or committee. For example, the Defense Council, which is entrusted with will of the Sultan to make suggestion for the defense of Oman, is headed up by the Sultan and the Minister of Defense, but also contains other advisory members who are not necessarily members of the Council of Ministers. Currently, the main concerns with the Council of Minister lie with the unlimited length of their terms and their relationship with business development in Oman.

Currently, the succession plan of the Sultan is a bit of a touchy subject in Oman. The naming of the Sultan’s successor technically follows a very strict set of rules. First, the Sultan must name his successor in his will. After his death, the name of the successor is revealed to the royal family, who has three days to make a decision on who will succeed the Sultan. In the past, if the royal family did not make a decision, the Defense Council was given the responsibility of choosing the new Sultan. Now, however, if the royal family fails to reach a decision, the Council of Oman must choose the next Sultan. Succession is such a hot-button issue right now because it is unclear whom the Sultan will name as his own successor as he has no children. On top of that, the Sultan is so well liked and revered in Oman that is difficult to imagine Oman without him. In addition, there has been a call for the creation of a true constitution of Oman (right now there are only basic laws), and if this were to happen, then the responsibilities of the Sultan might change as well. The adoption of the constitution could signal a shift from the current unitary Islamic absolute monarchy system in place to a constitutional monarchy with the Sultan as more of a figurehead, similar to the system in the United Kingdom with Queen Elizabeth. Theoretically, a Prime Minister would become the true head of government instead of the Sultan. But this is still a ways off. For now, the Sultan is firmly in power, although he consistently has been giving power to his advisors and the other branches of government recently, perhaps in response to the Omani Spring.

Which brings us to the Omani Spring! Why did the Omani Spring happen? According to Ahmad, it was a direct result of three main gaps in Omani governing: an institution gap, a hope/social justice gap, and a generational gap. The institution gap was caused by institutions such as the ministries that had no true power, and that individuals within the ministries and institutions had more control than the actual institution itself, which was causing alleged corruption. The hope/social justice gap is simply due to economic inequality; the rich in Oman are getting richer, and the media is compounding the issue even more. The generation gap is pretty self-explanatory: the Omani Spring really rested in the hands of the youth who demanded change.

On February 25, 2011, a man was killed during a riot in, causing a wave of discussion about inequality in Oman. More than anything, this event was a wake-up call that change was needed in Omani government. However, the reason the Omani Spring was different from the Arab Spring/Awakening in other Arab countries lies in whom the populace blamed. In other Arab countries, the dictator or ruler in charged was blamed for inequality and injustice. In Oman, however, where the Sultan is deeply revered, it was the ministers and not the Sultan who received the blame. The Sultan was incredible responsive to the demands and needs of his populace, taking note of everything that was said and demanded at the protests in the country and making according appropriate policy changes. The public has shifted from apathy to over-involvement, and people are getting a response from the Sultan and his government.

Ahmad’s discussion of Sharia law, or Islamic law, was pretty quick and very similar what we had heard already in the morning from Hafidh; In Oman, Sharia and civil law are two separate entities entirely. However, Ahmad also argued that there is currently an effort to put Sharia more in line with modern law and converge all schools and types of law into one stream or understanding of the law as a whole. It is unclear, though, if this is actually happening. Perhaps more importantly, though, is that the concept of consensus building in Oman comes from Sharia law. Now, this concept is influencing more parliamentary and civil law development as well.

After our whole talk with Ahmad was finished and we took all the needed pictures on our many cameras, we said goodbye and had an hour or so to relax before heading to the harbor in Muscat to walk around the area and see the Muttrah Souk, a large marketplace in Muscat. During our short break, Jake, Dillon, and I (the men of the group!) took a great walk along the beach behind our hotel and attempted to change over some American money to Omani Rials at the Intercontinental Muscat next door, but the bank in the building had just closed by the time we got there and we needed to head back to the hotel anyway to catch our baisa bus to the Muttrah Souk.

I nodded off a little on the ride to the Souk (I was so tired from our very long day already, so I figured a short power-nap couldn’t hurt at all), but by the time we actually arrived at the port I was ready to start moving again. Luckily, there was a monetary exchange place nearby that had a fantastic rate of 1 USD to 0.38 OMR. The Omani Rial is actually pegged to the dollar, so in theory the exchange rate shouldn’t change, but some places will try to rip you off. This rate was exactly what we were expecting though, so we were quite happy. By the time we got our money, we didn’t have much time left to wander around the Souk, so we’ll be returning in a couple of days.  I did see a couple of nice things though on our short walk around, so I’m excited to return and start shopping.

The reason we were in such a rush was that we had to get to a discussion at 7:30 with Professor Abdulla Daar at the Historical Association of Oman at the PDO (Petroleum Development Oman) Oil and Gas Exhibition Centre. Abdulla Daar is a doctor and public health researcher originally from Tanzania who then lived and worked in Oman and has since moved to Canada where he teaches and researches at the University of Toronto. Professor Daar spoke to us about his new book The Grandest Challenge: Taking Life-Saving Science from Lab to Village, which assesses inequities in Global Health including childbirth death, death of children, life expectancy, blindness, chronic non-communicable diseases, mental health, and lack of access to proper medical supplies. Along with the Gates Foundation and the World Health Organization, Professor Daar has helped to identity a series of priorities for researching and solving the “grand challenges” of global public health and global mental health through public-private partnership and funding through Grand Challenges Canada, an organization that he helped to found. The Oman connection comes in with the generosity and contribution of Oman to global health research, with the Minister of Foreign Affairs in Oman giving a large sum of money to fund the development of a low-cost Hepatitis B vaccine. With the help of the Omani government, an Indian biotech company was able to lower the price of the vaccine from $15 to fifty cents. Professor Daar is continuing to work today on addressing the many grand challenges of global public health, and his work is quite impressive. If you’re interested in this field of study, I would totally check out his book

After the talk, we headed back to the hotel and were all rather hungry because it was 9:00PM and we hadn’t eaten since our lunch at HE Sheikh Abdulla’s home (although none of us were too hungry for quite some time after leaving that impressive meal). The eight of us went out for dinner at the Italian restaurant around the corner from our hotel, O Solo Mio, and had an amazing time. We were all laughing until we were nearly crying telling funny and embarrassing stories. Mark is the winner for the funniest and most ridiculous tales I’ve ever heard in my life (apparently he was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles?). I had a delicious pasta dish, and it was just a really fun evening. At the end of the night, we debriefed about our day and discussed how moved we all were by the openness and tolerance of everyone in Oman as well as some of the political issues that we talked about with Ahmed, the ex-pat community in Oman, and our visit to the Mosque. It’s always helpful to debrief at the end of a long day filled with a lot of different opinions and information. As I said in my earlier post, we were not very surprised that not many people have heard of Oman. It’s so calm and tolerant that there’s not much reason for it to be in the media. But after my first day, I really could say with confidence that more people should have the pleasure of experiencing Oman first hand. It truly is a remarkable country that could even be a model and example for the rest of the region in its tolerance and acceptance. Not to mention how beautiful it is.

Safe Travels! – Jake

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