German and International Research on Oman 1998
The Omani Basic Law: change or continuity ?
by Nikolaus Siegfried [abstract]
On November 6, 1996, Sultan Qabus issued Decree 101/96, the first written constitution of Oman, marking an important step in the development of the Omani state.
However, observers of Omani politics are split over the impact of the Basic Law on the political and legal development in Oman. One group - most recently Miller (1997) - claims that the Basic Law is the turning point towards a representative monarchy
and democratization in the Sultanate, whereas others like Katz (1997) argue that the decree is but a completion of the policy Qabus has followed this far. The latter argument is an extension of Pridham (1986) who maintains that Qabus has in most respects continued
his father's government rather than initiated a truly innovative regency.
Within the framework of this controversy, I read Decree 101/96 in order to sort out whether it is mostly change or if it should be considered a continuation of traditional policies. Since the document has been named dustûr in the Arab-speaking world,
I will start with a brief sketch of concepts in European constitutions that have influenced Arab basic laws since the late 19th century.
In a second part, I shall discuss these notions as they appear in the constitutional texts of the other GCC countries. The basic laws there have certainly had a strong impact on the development of the Decree 101/96.
A comparison between them and the Omani Basic Law will be useful for identifying formulations that are special to the Omani setting and for assessing the innovative power the document bears.
A careful reading of the Omani Basic Law leads me to the conclusion that the Decree does not set a new framework in Oman. Its main purpose is fixing the status quo of powers. The Sultan remains the only recognized power in the state. Using Weber's conception of legitimacy, I show that the content as well as
the form of the Basic Law help to legitimize the Sultan's position. Connotations from the religious as well as the tribal sphere are exploited to this end. Whereas on a private level, citizens now enjoy more written rights than in most other countries in the Gulf, their role in public life remains negligible.
The Decree 101/96 gives no hint to a democratization in the country or even a reconsideration of the Sultan's absolute powers. He remains the Good Shepherd of the Omani people.
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Last updated on 30 May 1998.