C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 05 MUSCAT 000792
STATE FOR NEA/PI, NEA/ARPI
E.O. 12958: DECL: 05/16/2015
TAGS: KDEM KPAO KMPI AMGT ECON PREL PGOV MU
SUBJECT: COUNTRY DEMOCRATIC REFORM STRATEGY FOR OMAN
REF: SECSTATE 80607
Classified By: Ambassador Richard L. Baltimore III.
Reason: 1.4 (d).
Â¶1. (C) Oman stands ahead of many Arab states on broad issues
of democratic reform. Its constitution was promulgated in
1996 and enshrines human rights protections and judicial
independence. The lower house of its bicameral parliament
(the Majlis al-Shura, or Shura Council) has been an elective
body since 1992. While members of the upper house (the
Majlis al-Dawla, or State Council) are appointed by the
Sultan, female membership has grown to 15 percent. The World
Bank places Oman as Number 1 among Arab states for the degree
of government submission to the rule of law, and second only
behind the UAE for government transparency. Oman acceded to
the WTO in 2000, and is expected to conclude a Free Trade
Agreement (FTA) with the U.S. by the end of this year. The
Omani government has been fairly receptive to MEPI programs.
Â¶2. (C) Oman nevertheless has many shortfalls regarding
democratic reform. Neither house of parliament enjoys
genuine legislative powers. Political parties are banned and
civil society entities are limited in number and constrained
in their activities. There are no elective offices at the
regional or local level. While the FTA process is compelling
Oman to move toward organized labor and collective
bargaining, the nascent "workers representation committees"
are only just getting started and lack clear guidance. While
private media is permitted, the press is subject to both
governmental and self-censorship and is tightly monitored by
the Ministry of Information.
Â¶3. (SBU) The government has instituted a credible reform
program of its legal and educational systems, but requires
considerable technical assistance to achieve its objectives.
Fittingly, much of our MEPI-related assistance to Oman thus
far has targeted those critical and fertile targets of
opportunity and deserves continued support. We urge the
Department not to neglect these vital programs.
Â¶4. (C) Desired Outcome: Parliament endowed with legislative
Diplomatic Strategy and Baseline: We propose that the USG
offer the government assurances of an aggressive menu of
technical assistance and exchange opportunities in return for
Oman's assurances that the two houses of parliament will
acquire genuine legislative powers by the time the new
parliament is seated in late 2007. Since its creation in
1992 from similar predecessor bodies, the Majlis al-Shura (or
Shura Council, the lower house of parliament) has become
increasingly democratic as the government expanded suffrage
and reduced its influence over candidate registration in each
successive election. By 2003, the government exercised no
undue influence over candidate registration, and suffrage was
universal. The State Council (upper house), has been and
remains a fully appointed body, typically comprised of
retired senior government officials and influential business
and social leaders. Since its creation in 1996, it has grown
from 42 to 59 members, with the percentage of female members
rising from 9 percent to the current 15 percent. After the
October 2003 elections, the Sultan extended the term of
office for both houses to four years. Since 2000, the
International Republican Institute (IRI) conducted technical
training for staff members of first the State Council, but
now primarily the Majlis al-Shura. Earlier this year, IRI
succeeded for the first time in providing training directly
to elected members of the Shura Council on critical reading
of draft legislation submitted by the government.
Programming: Building upon IRI's excellent relations with
both Councils, we recommend a substantial increase in
technical training for both members and professional staff.
To provide an adequate tempo of activity, IRI (our top choice
for implementer) should establish a permanent presence in
Oman. Interactions with U.S. legislative members would be an
essential program element, possibly to include a dedicated
relationship with a sister legislature in a U.S. state. IRI
has successfully involved Canada in its programs, and the
UK's House of Commons likewise has a nascent relationship
with the Shura Council. The USG may be able to rely on other
BMENA partners for assistance.
Resource Requirements: $1-2 million, with IRI serving as
primary technical assistance implementer supplemented with
special International Visitor programs and possibly Fulbright
scholars as warranted.
-- November 2005: Based on Washington assurances of
resources, the Omani government privately agrees to a
timeline for imbuing the State and Shura Councils with
genuine legislative power by no later than the start of the
next terms of office for both houses (November 2007).
-- December 2005: Existing USG technical assistance programs
with both houses greatly expanded. Consultations undertaken
with BMENA partners for their engagement as well.
-- April 2006: Exchange visits with U.S. legislative bodies
begin in earnest.
-- December 2006: Technical assistance, such as through IFES,
begins for Oman's electoral commission.
-- January 2007: Omani government actively begins public
awareness campaign on expanded role of parliament, importance
of voter responsibility.
-- October 2007: Elections to the Shura Council.
-- November 2007: Newly empowered Shura Council and State
Council take office.
Consequences and Prospects: While the government may wish to
keep defense, security and foreign policy out of the
parliament's legislative reach in the initial stages,
empowering a legislature to address economic and development
agendas is consonant with our understanding of the Sultan's
long-term vision for Oman. Convincing the Omanis that the
time for imbuing legislative powers is now, as opposed to
sometime in the indeterminate future, will likely be the
Â¶5. (C) Desired Outcome: Government restrictions on civil
society organizations significantly relaxed, leading to a
rapid proliferation of new NGOs in ever-wider circles of
Diplomatic Strategy and Baseline: There are currently only
14 NGOs, including 9 professional associations (e.g.,
journalists, engineers, doctors), registered with the
Ministry of Social Development (MOSD). Most of these
organizations waited 3 years or more to win formal registry,
undergoing a slow and not always transparent process under an
Omani law that limits such organizations to a narrow band of
activities. The number of new NGOs grows by only 2-3 per
year, due to a small and poorly trained staff at MOSD and
lengthy security background checks performed by the security
services. The MOSD likewise oversees a network of 45
regional chapters of the Oman Women's Association (OWA).
Oman's Minister of Social Development is one of the
least-experienced and youngest members of the Omani cabinet;
though she is currently overwhelmed with her new
responsibilities and limited support staff, she is
intelligent and could become a powerful positive force for
civil society development if properly groomed. The Ministry
of Foreign Affairs is encouraging the USG to provide the new
minister all necessary support and assistance.
Programming: We need a 2-3 year project built first and
foremost around a resident American adviser who would work
directly for MOSD, and in close coordination with an
expatriate project manager to oversee technical assistance to
new and existing NGOs, including the OWA chapters.
Train-the-trainer activities would be the primary focus. The
growth and continuation of the MEPI Small Grants program
would give us necessary flexibility to respond to emerging
additional needs and reform opportunities.
Resource Requirements: A dedicated project budget of $1-2
million over two years, to include funding for a resident
expatriate advisor to MOSD. MEPI Small Grants totaling $150K
in 2005, and $200K in 2006, with additional staff support to
the MEPI regional office in Abu Dhabi to accommodate this
increase in small grant activity. We would also require
additional International Visitor (IV) or Special IV slots, as
well as Voluntary Visitor programs. Embassy Muscat would
require an additional staff position to oversee these
-- December 2005: Expatriate adviser begins 2-year secondment
to the Ministry of Social Development.
-- December 2005: Number of NGOs receiving MEPI small grants
increases to six.
-- June 2006: Substantial revision of Omani law and
regulations significantly reduces government's role in NGOs,
dramatically simplifies the registration process of new NGOs.
-- October 2006: MEPI small grants awarded to eight NGOs.
-- December 2006: Number of registered NGOs grows to 25.
Consequences and Prospects: Even within the context of Omani
conservatism, the existing restrictions on civil society
organizations are harsher than might otherwise be expected.
The absorptive capacity of MOSD may prove the greatest
constraint to creating new NGOs.
Genuine Labor Unions
Â¶6. (C) Desired Outcome: Workers committees function as
genuine labor unions fully equipped to bargain collectively.
Diplomatic Strategy and Baseline: While the Omani government
revamped its labor law in 2003, the first union-type
organizations (termed worker representative committees)
permitted under the law only came into existence in late
Â¶2004. At present, there are roughly 20 committees duly
registered by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). While the MOM
has assured our FTA negotiators that the committees will
function as unions, complete with powers of collective
bargaining, the committees and MOM seem to lack clear
guidelines as to how this will actually happen. This lack of
clarity presents both challenges and stunning opportunities,
assuming the USG can move swiftly enough to fill the void
with our own visions of how organized labor can and should
develop in Oman. The worker representative committees were
supposed to elect a national-level committee this month that
would have, inter alia, represented Oman at international
labor fora such as the ILO Conference in June.
Unfortunately, the MOM cited lack of adequate preparation for
elections as the reason for its decision on May 4 to appoint
the national committee instead.
Programming: In conjunction with BMENA partners and the ILO,
the USG (USTR, DOL, DRL and NEA/PI) should identify technical
assistance contractor(s) who could provide soup-to-nuts
advice and training to both workers committees and the MOM on
how to craft and implement essential legal frameworks for
genuine labor unions. Partner institutions could include the
AFL-CIO, the Solidarity Center, the ILO regional office in
Beirut, and unions in other Arab FTA states such as Jordan
and Bahrain. Heavy emphasis should be placed on examples
from a variety of nations, to give the Omanis maximum
flexibility in arriving at a framework most appropriate for
the Sultanate. The USG and allies would need to maintain
steady engagement at the political level to encourage Oman's
follow-through on its stated commitments.
Resource Requirements: NEA/PI budgets for technical
assistance in the labor field should be augmented
substantially, particularly as more states follow the example
of Oman and other states in concluding Free Trade Agreements
with the U.S. Assuming substantial resources can be provided
for labor technical assistance, the Department may have to
consider establishing dedicated labor officers in our
embassies in FTA partner states like Oman (or, more broadly,
within the GCC).
-- September 2005: Start of first labor workshops and
technical assistance to the Manpower Ministry.
-- January 2006: Number of registered workers representative
committees grows to 50.
-- May 2006: Dedicated training provided to the members of
the Omani delegation to the ILO Conference.
-- October 2006: All necessary implementing regulations for
genuine labor organizations brought into force.
-- May 2007: Elections among all workers committees for the
new National Committee.
Consequences and Prospects: If not managed properly,
aggressive labor unions lacking adequate regulation could
prove a break on Oman's recent impressive growth rates and
possibly damage the investment climate for U.S. companies.
Given Oman's paucity of experience, however, there are
excellent prospects for USG influence in this field should
resources be provided.
Â¶7. (C) Desired Outcome: Abolition of the Ministry of
Information and full privatization of the media by 2007.
Diplomatic Strategy and Baseline: The Ministry of Information
(MOI) enforces censorship of all print and electronic media
inside Oman, and directly owns or manages numerous
publications and broadcast entities. Since its inception,
the MOI has been under conservative leadership that fosters a
climate hostile to open discourse of political, economic and
social issues. While the government is promoting
privatization of key economic sectors, it has shown no
indication thus far of following Kuwait's example of
abolishing the ministry, and has purposely excluded the media
from our market access requests in the FTA negotiations. A
high-level and concerted effort to engage reform elements
within the Omani government (and perhaps more broadly within
the GCC) will be required to win philosophical acceptance of
removing the government from direct oversight of the media.
If Oman's political buy-in to this strategy could be achieved
by mid-2006, and adequate technical assistance (per below) be
provided, the MOI could conceivably be liquidated as early as
Programming: First and foremost, we would require USG
engagement to introduce and win support for this desired
outcome, concentrating on the government's key economic
decision-makers, the Foreign Ministry, and ultimately the
Sultan himself. We would then propose technical assistance
programs to advise the government on legislative means of
ensuring legitimate government oversight (decency standards,
transparent licensing requirements, and modern libel and
defamation laws) and means for establishing press offices
within individual government institutions that would serve
the important purpose of publicizing government activities.
We would encourage exchange visits by concerned government
officials to other Arab and non-Arab states that have evolved
away from information ministries, as well as to such USG
institutions as the FCC.
Resource Requirements: While exchange programs and technical
assistance could easily be provided under existing contracts
and USG programs, we would recommend a dedicated budget
(approximately $250K) for this program. Efficiencies could
be realized if this strategy were adopted more broadly within
the region or among sub-regional entities (e.g., the GCC).
-- December 2005: Oman government agrees privately to agenda
for abolishing the MOI and privatizing media.
-- March 2006: Intensive technical assistance underway for
legal, structural reforms.
-- June 2006: Government publicizes intention to privatize
all media holdings, forms working group to plan dissolution
of the MOI.
-- December 2006: Legitimate government oversight functions
transferred to technical agencies; new laws implemented to
reform censorship standards; government ministries establish
indigenous press offices.
-- March 2007: Government-owned media enterprises totally
-- June 2007: Ministry of Information formally abolished.
Consequences and Prospects: In a country known for its
moderation and relative liberalism, the government's attitude
thus far to the media is one of its most regressive. Certain
vested interests within the government may strongly resist
efforts to loosen its stranglehold on the media, but once the
philosophical hurdle is removed, progress will come quickly.
A liberalized media may generate more vocal opposition of USG
policies and economic reforms, but it will likewise serve as
a bulwark for transparency and democratization.