Oman - Government Institutions
Government institutions on the national level include the Council of Ministers and two other bodies: the National Defense Council and the National Development Council. In 1992 the Council of Ministers had twenty-seven members, including the prime minister and three deputy prime ministers--for security and defense, legal affairs, and financial and economic affairs. The sultan occupied the sensitive posts of prime minister, minister of defense, minister of foreign affairs, and minister of finance. Sultan Qabus ibn Said controls all ministerial appointments and cabinet reshuffles. Policy formulation remains largely the product of person-to-person negotiations between the sultan and individual ministers.
The National Defense Council, working in conjunction with the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Interior, coordinates the activities of the Royal Armed Forces (formerly called the Sultan's Armed Forces) and the Royal Oman Police. The National Development Council manages national development planning, and all projects involving more than a certain minimum expenditure require its review.
In 1991 Qabus established the Consultative Council (Majlis ash Shura), a sixty-member body. The Consultative Council superseded the fifty-five-member State Consultative Council (SCC; Majlis al Istishari lil Dawlah) created in 1981 with significant regional and popular as well as official representation.
Whereas the concept of consultation is an integral part of Ibadi Islam and the imamate, it was not a tradition incorporated into Oman's contemporary sultanate until Qabus ibn Said established the SCC by royal decree on October 18, 1981. Initially, the SCC consisted of forty-three members but was expanded to fifty-five in 1983 with representation of the seven geographic regions weighted according to population size and development needs. Nineteen members were government officials, and of the nineteen, eleven--undersecretaries of social service ministries--were the only permanent members of the SCC. The remaining seven government officials could serve a maximum of two terms (four years), as could other SCC members.
Like the SCC, the Consultative Council lacks legislative powers but plays a consultative role. Its representatives come from Oman's fifty-nine wilayat (governorates; sing., wilayah). Candidates are selected by the wali (Muscat-appointed governor) and can be nominated by friends or themselves. After the nomination process, names of three candidates are submitted to the deputy prime minister for legal affairs in Muscat, who selects the final candidates, who must then be endorsed by the sultan.
Unlike the SCC, members of the Consultative Council cannot include government officials or civil servants. Although this condition automatically excludes a pool of politically experienced individuals, it is intended to circumvent potential allegations of conflict of interest. The inclusion of eleven undersecretaries in the SCC tended to strengthen it as a body codifying the status quo rather than offering legitimate criticism and alternative policies. The SCC's recommendations did not include defense, foreign affairs, or the petroleum sector. It convened three times annually, with each session lasting three days to a week. The restricted format, infrequent meetings, and lack of veto power or legislative role combined to tie the SCC's hands. Despite these shortcomings, the news reports and televised broadcasts of the SCC exposed the public to a limited part of the government structure. It also modestly introduced the concept of accountability, although the ultimate authority of the sultan remained unquestioned.
The role of the new Consultative Council can perhaps best be understood in the framework of Oman's graduated development process. In 1970 Qabus ibn Said rejected a constitutional monarchy and parliamentary system in favor of preservation of the status quo. Subsequently, the SCC evolved from an earlier advisory body, the Council on Agriculture, Fisheries, and Industries, established in April 1979. The council was largely successful in serving as an "outside" body offering policy recommendations to the sultan and the ministers, although the scope of its consultation was relatively narrow. It was abolished in October 1981, and seven of its twelve members were incorporated into the SCC. The Consultative Council has modestly opened the political system.
Oman's legal system is based on the Ibadi interpretation of the sharia (Islamic law), which is similar to that of the four orthodox schools of Sunni Islam. Jurisprudence is administered regionally by the wali, in conjunction with the qadi, a judge who has attained that position either by graduating from an Islamic law college or by taking advanced study with local religious experts. Although primarily guided by the sharia, the system aims at arriving at a fair decision or compromise acceptable to all parties. Invariably, tribal law has become mixed with religious law. Modern commercial law, borrowed from other parts of the Middle East and Europe, also operates in the business sphere.
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