GRM 2010 GRM 2011

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A Political Institution in Transition: The Omani Majlis al-Shura since 2011
Paper Proposal Text :
The Majlis al-Shura holds a critical position among Gulf political institutions; it is both a symbol of religious and cultural tradition, and, in some cases, the closest these states have come to institutionalised participatory governance. The form and function of the Majlis al-Shura varies enormously within the GCC states – in Qatar and Saudi Arabia it is an appointed body, in Bahrain it forms a counterweight to the elected Majlis al-Nuwab, and Kuwait and the UAE have eschewed the Majlis al-Shura in favour of elected unicameral bodies. Nor is the final nature of these bodies complete; Gulf states are, this paper argues, in an era of transition and most have come under intense pressure since 2011 to reform political institutions and widen popular participation. Building and reforming the Majlis al-Shura in the Gulf, then, remains a delicate balance between local tradition, maintenance of existing power relations, and global pressure for political participation that has had a substantive impact on domestic attitudes towards political representation.

This process is particularly revealing in Oman, which currently hosts the only elected Majlis al-Shura in the Gulf, and which responded to popular unrest in 2011 by expanding the observatory and practical powers of the Majlis al-Shura, introducing, for the first time, the right of interpellation and the requirement that all draft laws be submitted to the Majlis Oman for review. This paper draws from a series of 57 semi-structured interviews conducted with citizens of Oman, including ministers, current and former members of the Majlis al-Shura and Majlis al-Dowla, parliamentary aides, development experts, civil society organizations, and participants in popular demonstrations since 2011 to discuss how the Majlis al-Shura has evolved as a political institution and how its development has impacted the state-society relationship in Oman. Of central import is the question of direction: do these recent changes indicate the Omani Majlis al-Shura is transforming into a participatory body, or is this a case of limited political opening granted to preclude wider societal unrest?

The paper finds that although Oman has touted the expansion of the Majlis al-Shura’s legislative powers since 2011, the extent of these powers remains far from clear and without clarification it remains essentially a consultative body. Even members of the Majlis al-Shura expressed uncertainty regarding where the limits of their political powers lay; they were, in many cases, exploring untested waters. Upon consultation with government interviewees, the paper posits this uncertainty was, in part, a result of government factionalism, with internal debate over how to respond to the increased authority of the Majlis al-Shura and, to some extent, conservative resistance to the changes.

The paper also discusses the evolving attitudes of members within the Majlis al-Shura, many of whom referenced a sense of empowerment since 2011 and felt they were now mandated by Sultan Qaboos to hold Cabinet accountable and participate more fully in policy-making. Although their formal powers remain limited to ‘recommendations’ on legislation, the activity of Oman’s Majlis al-Shura since 2011 suggests members have incorporated state rhetoric encouraging their active participation - their mobilisation will be difficult, should their empowerment prove illusory, to reverse. The paper discusses these developments through in-depth discussions of specific laws, notably expatriate tax legislation, and the recent alcohol ban.

Although political parties remain illegal under Omani law, the paper discusses fragmentation and organization groupings within the Majlis al-Shura that have affected its capacity to push for political reform. Traditionally, members are elected as independents and, in practice, rely heavily on tribal connections and do not form organisational groups beyond their working committees. The paper discusses two attempts to create political organisation related to the Majlis al-Shura: the first, a regional grouping within the Majlis to co-operate on common policy issues, and the second, a societal group’s efforts to encourage the election of Majlis al-Shura candidates on a non-tribal basis and to appeal to what they described as the ‘middle electorate’. Both initiatives faced obstacles stemming from the independent culture within the Majlis – particularly the existence of members who are colloquially referred to as utha’ al-khadamat or abu khadamat (‘Services Member’ or ‘Father Benefits’) and who view the Majlis as a tool to channel material benefits to their tribe or region. These practices were, in the view of several current and former members, encouraged by individuals in government resistant to the recent changes, as well as by pressure from constituents who view the Majlis as a rent-seeking institution.

At its core, the paper argues that the Majlis al-Shura has performed several critical roles for the state-society relationship as a result of the changes instituted in 2011. It has continued its role as a consultative institution, and as an embodiment of Ibadhi religious traditions, yet increasingly since 2011, it has been used as a gauge for public opinion and an experiment in limited popular participation. There are also indications that members of the Majlis, encouraged by state rhetoric, now expect the Majlis al-Shura to play a central role in policy-making, and would likely voice dissatisfaction should the body move away from a participatory trajectory. In an era of transition, the Omani Majlis al-Shura, then, represents an experiment in responsive governance and generates interesting implications for the study of political institutions in the Gulf.