Oman. Elections: women’s marginal role

The citizens of the Sultanate of Oman will be called upon to vote for the Consultative Assembly in the upcoming elections on 31 October. Few opportunities for women.

The Sultanate of Oman , which is located in the south eastern corner of the Arabian Peninsula, occupies a strategic geographical position. It is crossed by the Tropic of Cancer and is a communication route between the Indian Ocean, East Africa and the Persian Gulf. The country’s  1,700 km long coastline stretches from the Strait of Hormuz, which separates Iran  from Omar to the north, up to the border with the Republic of Yemen to the south. The Sultanate of Oman, which has a population of about three million and six hundred thousand, has been ruled by Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said since 1970 .

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In the wake of protests that erupted in several countries of North Africa in January of 2011, the first demonstrations, in Oman, took place in the  port city of Sohar, a thriving business centre. Unlike the protesters in the other Arab  countries, who called for fall of their governments, Omani demonstrators, demanded better pay, lower prices and also called for an end to corruption, a more equitable distribution of oil revenues, an increase in power for the legislative body, while at the same time  they were not challenging Sultan Qaboos’s rule but simply  they wanted new faces in the government. The clashes between the protesters and the police in Sohar left six people dead and many injured.

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In an attempt to ease tensions, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, gave orders to create 50,000 jobs, and also ordered that 150 Omani Rial a month  (less than $ 400), be given to every job seeker. But tensions did not calm down, forcing the powerful Economy Minister Ahmad Mekki and two other ministers to step down. Their resignation was  greeted with satisfaction by protesters. In early March 2011, the sultan conceded modest political reforms, and also promised that he would consider widening the power of the legislative body, and allow  also people not belonging  to the royal family to be part of it if elected.
In the last days of March and in early April  tensions rose again, a group of protesters took to the streets to demand the release of detained political opponents. Some demonstrators threw stones at the  security forces  who reacted  aggressively. The clashes left one dead, and dozens injured, while many protesters were arrested. Although the sultan, in mid-April, had announced a $ 2 and a half billion spending package  to meet  the demonstrators’ demands, unrest remained high for the entire month of April and during the first half of May.  In October 2011, elections were held to the Consultative Assembly, for which Sultan Qaboos promised greater powers.

 October 2015 Elections

After four years,  Omani voters will go to the polls for the Majlis Ashura,( the lower house of the Council of Oman), elections scheduled to be held on October 31.The Consultative Assembly, established in 1991, is the only democratically elected legislative body among  the Government institutions of the Sultanate. The members of the Upper House, the State Council (Majlis al-Dawla), are in fact directly appointed by the Sultan for a term of four years.
The Assembly  consists of 84 members elected from a single list, which includes only independent candidates, since political parties are not allowed in the country. In early 2003, Sultan Qaboos declared universal suffrage for the October 2003 Majlis al-Shura elections, earlier only  tribal chiefs, intellectuals, dignitaries and businessmen were entitled to vote.

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Although Oman in 1994  became the first Gulf state to grant women the right to vote and stand for public office, the number of female candidates in the Consultative Council elections slid over the years from 27 in 1997 to 15 in 2004. Only two women were elected in 2004. None of the 21 female candidates succeeded in the 2007 elections.  Only one woman, Naama Jamil Al Busaidi, succeeded in winning a seat in the 84-member council in the last elections in 2011, despite the fact that the number of female candidates had increased  (77 out of a thousand candidates).
This year women represent just 3.1 per cent. Only 21 out of the 674 candidates for October’s Majlis Al Shura elections are women, a number that is raising concerns about the lack of female representation in Oman’s political system. At the beginning of 2015 it was suggested that the government allocated one seat in each governorate for women, which would ensure that at least 11 women were in the Shura, but the proposal was not carried out and  without a quota, the number of female candidates is unlikely to increase in the Majlis.

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The lack of women in  politics in Oman, is not only linked to the lack of trust accorded to them by voters , also as a consequence of some cultural contexts of a patriarchal society, but also, according to Iman Al Ghafri,  current president of the Omani Women’s Association in Qurum,  to the fact that that most women prefer to avoid getting involved with politics and focus on their careers or businesses instead. Women are more likely to worry about losing their positions and missing potential promotions at work if they take time out to be members of the Majlis Al Shura. Therefore, still the majority of Omani women rely on other careers rather than being involved in politics, a field which is still characterised by uncertainty and instability, despite the broader powers granted  by Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said to Majlis Ashura, following the Arab spring .

Alima Saliba Isa




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