This is a report that I wrote during the last election to the Majlis Al Shura (Lower House of Parliament) of Oman.
MAJLIS AL SHURA –
HOUSE OF OMAN’S INDIGENOUS DEMOCRACY
By Madhu Nambiar
Democracy in Oman? Many of us in the so called third world countries may be sceptical to this version, because our knowledge based on what we saw and heard and conceived of democracy is entirely different from that of what it is really meant.
Synonyms rich English language’s this word seems lost its original character in the flow of technological revolution and subsequent cultural erosion in the third world. Misuse and operational faults have made democracy a fleshless structure in some countries. Democracy is one of the most abused words.
Oman has no democracy of the models that exist in some other parts of the world in the name of democracy. Democracy in few of those parts of the world has become demons’ crazy. That democracy has no place in the Omani soil.
Election process for the fourth Majlis Al Shura (name for Oman’s Lower House of parliament) scheduled for 14th September 2000, has already begun to elect representatives whose three-year term of office begins on 1st December 2000.
A candidate was free to canvass voters. The ratio of voters is calculated to the density of the population in each Wilayat (district). It is reported that in the anticipated closely contested forthcoming Majlis election list has more than 600 nominees including women to be elected by an estimated 175,000 electorates.
In the third Majlis Al Shura (1997-2000) there were 27 women among 736 candidates to nominate 82members. While in the second Majlis Al Shura women could stand for its membership only from Muscat Governorate, the third Majlis Al Shura election saw the women stood for election in all the wilayats.
Oman thus became the first country in the Middle East to conduct elections to the Majlis Al Shura by giving equal rights to women to elect and be elected.
This is Oman’s democracy and Majlis Al Shura is its deeply laid foundation stone, for a slow and step by step construction towards a firm, right and indigenous democracy. Oman does not like to import any system. Nor it wants its system exported. Its system is unique. That is its peculiarity.
If you don’t brand the Omani democracy with any foreign brand, you can see democracy exists in Oman since long. Majlis Al Shura is only a turning point. Oman’s democracy is derived from the tenets of the Islamic teachings in its originality and from the deep-rooted Omani traditions and culture.
Oman’s renaissance began on July 23, 1970, when His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said’s accession to the throne took place. Until then Oman was almost a medieval country. In a short span of 30 years, Oman progressed tremendously in all fronts and the wheel of progress is moving ahead steadily and carefully for the betterment of the Omani people.
Modern History of Omani democracy:
After the accession, in early 1970s, His Majesty had set up a council for agriculture, fisheries and industries. This council was very successful.
Success of this council is evident from the fact that at present agriculture, fisheries and industry are the three important sectors relied upon as additional sources of national income after crude oil, the main source of income.
Agriculture and fisheries are the traditional occupational areas of the Omani people and incorporation of modern methods in these sectors and the industrialization drive have further strengthened the Omani economy.
In the 1980s, success of the council for agriculture, fisheries and industries paved way for establishing the State Consultative Council to help accelerate all round progress of the country, and the State Consultative Council came in to existence on November 3, 1981, by its formal opening by His Majesty.
A president headed the State Consultative Council and comprised 54 nominated members representing government and non-government sectors. One-third (18) members represented the government sector and two-third (36) members represented the non-government sector. Most of the government sector members were undersecretaries concerned with social and economic development of the country. Their representation in the council had benefitted it. The State Consultative Council during its existence for a period of 10 years from 1981 to 1991 made valuable contributions through studies, deliberations, researches and field work which covered the entire Sultanate of Oman in the fields of economic and social developments.
The success of the State Consultative Council and its high performance has further paved the way for the establishment of Majlis Al Shura whose members are elected by the people.
It was during the 20th National Day speech in 1990, His Majesty announced the creation of the Majlis Al Shura in place of the State Consultative Council. His Majesty then issued a Royal Decree on November 13, 1991, setting up the Majlis Al Shura which is set to promote harmony and serve the entire Omani society for their progress and prosperity. The inaugural session of the first ever Majlis Al Shura was held on December 21, 1991, paving way for indigenous Omani democracy.
The first Majlis Al Shura (1991-94) had 59 members, one member each representing each of the 59 Wilayats of the country.
It was in 1993, the first population census held in Oman. Again, Oman was the first country in the Middle East to hold such a population census. The census revealed that as on November 30, 1993, Oman has a total population of 2,017,591 people. 74% Omanis and 26% foreigners. The census also revealed that the number of Omani families is 274,357 and every family has accommodation and Oman has no housing shortage. This shows Oman has already reached the UN target set for the year 2000.
The census figures resulted in the enlargement of the Majlis Al Shura. Accordingly, for the second term (1994-97) the number of members increased to 80. The Wilayats, which have population more than 30,000, represented by a single member each. Owing to population increase, in the third term the Majlis membership increased to 82.
On an experimental basis, for the first time in the whole Middle East two women were selected to the Majlis Al Shura from Muscat Governorate in 1994. This new development shows another instance of His Majesty’s recognition of women’s role in the society. His Majesty often said that women had an important contribution to make to society in which they live. By the election of third Majlis Al Shura women got equal chance to elect and be elected in all the Wilayats. Thus, Omani democracy is a time tested one.
Today, one can see Omani women working in almost all-occupational areas. Their position in the society is well accepted.
His Majesty completes the final selection of Majlis Al Shura members with the approval. For this, two-member Wilayats send a list of four members from which His Majesty approves the selection of two, and one-member Wilayats send a list of two members from which His Majesty approves the selection of one.
On Majlis Al Shura, His Majesty commended: “We look to the Majlis as a partner with the government in the work to build this country and serve the people through the available resources. The Majlis Ash’ Shura has proved itself capable of undertaking its tasks as evidenced from its recommendations. Women’s participation in the Majlis is an honour not merely to them but to the entire community. The step is also a correction of a wrong belief, which belittles the status, which Islam accords to women. The country needs every pair of hands for promoting national development, stability and prosperity.”
Omani democracy was further boosted with the establishment of Majlis Al Daula or Council of State, the upper house, in December 1977. Majlis Al Shura and Majlis Al Daula are jointly known as Council of Oman, which is opened by His Majesty at the beginning of each new term of Majlis Al Shura and Majlis Al Daula.
Further contribution of the current epoch making era of Oman, under the wise, farsighted, blessed and enlightened leadership of His Majesty is the declaration of the Basic of Law of the State or the Constitution, in November 1996. His Majesty said:
“The Basic Law of the State, the blueprint for governance, provides the main base for the continuance of progress and development. It is the distillation of the experience gained over the past years, crowning the efforts of a quarter of a century of fruitful work. Justice and equality between Omanis will be pillars of society guaranteed by the State.”
More than all these, the crystal clear face of Omani democracy is visible in His Majesty’s Meet-the-people tour. His Majesty Sultan Qaboos every year undertake weeks long annual meet the people tour to Wilayats. This annual tour to the width and breadth of the country with ministers is described as ‘an open parliament’ or ‘a democracy in action’. This description is perfectly correct in all senses.
During the meet the people tour, open parliaments –participated by Shaikhs, senior citizens, notables and others of the area—are held in different places, and wide ranging topics related to socio-economic matters and others are discussed.
His Majesty is also able to hear from the Omani subjects directly. The subjects explain their views on government programmes related to them, their needs and problems. Decisions on these are quickly taken. In the contemporary world such a close and affectionate interaction between the ruler and the ruled is perhaps rare.
During special occasions like Eid and National Day, His Majesty receives the Omani subjects.
Majlis tradition, a great Arab tradition:
When cultural values are faded and they are in the brink of erosion in some countries due to the under-currents of the present-day technological explosion and globalization, there are some tribes –the Arabs—in the Middle East whose traditions and culture are unaffected by the universal cultural recession.
Omanis never turned their faces against the fast changing world though. They are, in fact, able to absorb the positive elements and discard the unwanted from the rapidly advancing technology and subsequent overall changes. These tendencies have ultimately helped them to further unite themselves and to preserve their traditions and culture.
It is not that much easy for typhoons of technologies to blow off and floods of changes to wipe off the solid traditions which are as old as the civilization. The Arab traditions to which Oman is a part are evolved through centuries. It is evident from the archeological and historical importance of Oman.
The recent discovery of grass eating dinosaur fossils from Al Khod and Fanja, near the capital indicates that millions of years ago this part of the world was covered with dense forests.
Also, there are enough evidences to believe that Oman is part of the vanished country of Magan, referred for copper in the Sumerian inscriptions. Sumerians are known as architects of the first civilization and inventors of the first cuneiform writing.
In the later part of the history, Oman was known through Sindbad the sailor and Queen Sheba besides travelogues of Marco Polo and Ibn Batuta and others. Visitors marvelled at the arresting beauty of the nature-blessed country and the hospitality of its people.
When black gold (crude oil) is only the modern development in the Middle East, Oman was known to the outside world in the ancient time through its white gold (incense). Wealth was brought to Oman through the incense trade, which was largely the occupation of the ‘Jabelis’ and ‘Bedouins’ of Dhofar region where frankincense is grown in plenty even today. Salalah is the capital of the Dhofar region.
Dhows set sail to Africa, Asia and Europe from the then busy port of Khor Rori in Dhofar.
Caravan routes lengthened as long as to Syria, Iraq, Yemen and other parts of the Middle East and traded in their different kinds of frankincense, dates and dry fish with spices, wood and silk.
It is on these caravan routes, thousands of years ago, the term ‘Majlis’ was born, which was fostered at the caravan traders’ colourful tents and then grown in their simple homes and clung in their society and slowly became an integral part of their social tradition.
At present, each Arab house, whether it is traditional or modern, has a ‘Majlis’ which is in literary term “a reception room”.
“Ahlan Wa Sahlan’, ‘Assalamu Alaikkum’, ‘Wa Alikkum Assalam”, a guest is welcomed to the majlis with courteous salutations. Enquiry of welfare does not limit on each other’s in the Arab customs but to all others connected to them. During discussions, dates or halwa with ‘qahwa’ is served in traditional pots. Mutual respect is always preserved.
Slowly, it is from the ‘majlis’ discussions, emerged “Shura” means ‘consultation’ for the overall prosperity of the society.
It is from the ancient Arab traditions, to some extent, the modern democratic or parliamentary conception is emerged and the large part of credit goes to Arabs.
Majlis Al Shura conception is integral and it is the part of Arab including Omani tradition and culture.
Visiting parliamentary delegations of other countries often call on the Majlis President and also the Majlis delegations visit other countries and discuss various matters connected to parliamentary procedures and functional duties in modern time so as to help it remain a strong and effective link between the government and the people for the overall benefit of the country.
Courtesy: Omani Periodicals.
Sur, Oman: 01.09.2000.