For a long time, the Sultanate of Oman has benefitted from a reputation of being the most progressive of the Arab Gulf countries, with its supposedly advanced position of human rights, and particularly protections to women’s rights and the freedom of expression. However, this article will explore the limitations of this positive image, revealing worrying similarities with its repressive and autocratic neighbours.
Indeed, there has been a steady rhetoric lauding the country for its progressiveness and its ability to withstand the instability of the region – portraying Oman as an ‘Oasis of Peace’ or the ‘Switzerland of the Gulf’. Despite sharing borders with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and conflict-ridden Yemen, Oman has steadfastly maintained its foreign policy principles of neutrality and independence. They refused to join the Saudi-led war on Yemen, and when many other Gulf states boycotted Qatar for its ‘embrace of various terrorist and sectarian groups aimed at destabilising the region’, Oman kept their ports open to them.
Additionally, Oman’s basic law ostensibly protects women’s rights and freedom of expression, with articles (17) and (29) respectively enshrining the principle of non-discrimination and guaranteeing freedom of expression and opinion. Articles (11) and (12) further protect women’s rights to own property and access financial services, as well as guarantee equality in appointments to public positions.
Moreover, the Sultanate has signed and ratified various instruments of international law or international treaties, ensuring both women’s and civil and political rights. In 2005, Oman ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), thus aligning themselves with international standards for gender equality. They also ratified both the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination in 1996 and 2003 respectively. Finally, despite lagging behind for years, they ratified a series of conventions in June 2020, including the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
Despite this progressive image, Omani authorities have been systematically suppressing freedom of expression in the country. In 2022, Freedom House rated Oman a 24/100 on freedom, and considered the country as “not free”. The central tool of the suppression of free expression in the country is the prohibition of criticism against the Sultan according to article 41 of the Constitution: even if some elements of freedom of expression persist, any kind of dissent is practically blocked.
Private media outlets do exist, but they often censor themselves, for fear of being punished if they are too controversial. The government can indeed close outlets, block websites, revoke licences, and prosecute journalists for content violations. In 2017, the newspaper Azamn was closed permanently, after the journal released an article reporting judicial corruption. The government also tightly monitors media reports, to keep the image of the country under control, sometimes by directly giving directions to media outlets on what news to cover. Starting 23 May 2021, unemployed or laid-off Omani youth started demonstrating for job opportunities. The news spread rapidly amongst the population and more protests arose, but media outlets were told by the higher authorities not to address the issue, otherwise permits would be withdrawn.
The authorities also continually harass political activists and critics. Their personal communications have been monitored, they have been arrested, interrogated, and sentenced to prison because of their criticism of the government on social media. Moreover, since 2014, the Interior Ministry has the absolute power to strip Omani of their citizenship when they contradict the government. As a result, most of them have been practising self-censorship. Some have been detained on evasive charges, such as “insulting the Sultan” and “undermining the prestige of the State”. In 2018, a new penal code was introduced, that increases the maximum penalties for slander of the sultan and blasphemy from 3 to 7 years and 3 to 10 years in prison respectively. In July 2021, activist Ghaith al-Shibli was detained for engaging in dialog on Twitter on several topics, including atheism, religion, and freedom of speech. In August 2021, activist Khamis al-Hatali was arrested, after he published a video criticising Sultan Haitham on Twitter and calling him an “oppressor”. Families of dissidents have also been targeted: in 2020, OCHR reported that family members of human rights defenders outside of Oman continued to suffer from police harassment and government threats.
As a result, ECDHR calls on the international community not to be fooled by the fake image of a progressive country, and to actively advocate towards the Omani government to respect its commitment towards international human rights instruments. We also call on the Omani authorities to stop suppressing expressions of dissent and to respect freedom of expression in the country.
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