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Paul McLoughlin

Omanis elect younger parliament amid low oil price fears

Power has traditionally rested with Oman's older generation of tribal leaders [AFP]

Date of publication: 27 October, 2015

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Analysis: Oman took to the polls on Sunday, as fears rose that a sustained economic slump could lead to job losses and a widening divide between young and old.

A young, fresh-faced Shura council was unveiled in Muscat late on Monday as results of the country's latest election emerged. The results will allay some fears over generational divides in Omani society, say analysts.

Omanis went to the polls on Sunday to decide who would fill the 65 seats of the Shura council, the country's nascent parliament.

Initial reports from the election organising committee suggested a "record-breaking turnout" with 56 percent of the eligible population taking part in the process, which was still a 24 percent drop from 2011. 

The past week saw a rather subdued election campaign from the 600 independent candidates in Oman, where political parties are banned. 

There were fears that a low turnout from young Omanis would lead to a Shura council filled with older tribal rulers, without a mandate from younger generations. 

This would potentially have been a dangerous scenario for a country that has been rocked by protests in recent years, and entering a sustained downward economic cycle where job losses and lower living standards are almost inevitable.

However, these fears were allayed when it became apparant than young Omanis did indeed vote - when the results showed a generational shift towards a younger, more educated parliament and that 70 percent of those elected were new faces.

For a country where age and seniority have long been associated with authority, this is quite a shift in responsibility and power, and the fact that many new Shura members are in their thirties has taken many by suprise.

However, this presents its own set of challenges for the future of the country.

     The fact that many new Shura members are in their thirties has taken many by suprise


Consultation

Zakaria al-Muharrmi, an Omani writer, believes that many younger Omanis will be happy with this arrangement.

"I am optimistic. I believe that they will built on the achievements of the previous council, there's no turning back."

Shura - translating to "consultation" - is a traditional power structure in Oman, in place in the Ibadi-majority interior region for centuries.

"Shura, in essence, is the involvement of people in decision-making through expression of opinions," said Muharrmi. "Oman's ruling system was based on Shura for the past 12 centuries, till the mid-twentieth century."

The current format was introduced in 1991, with ultimate authority still lying with Sultan Qaboos bin Said who has been in power for 45 years.

He has been careful to balance tradition with modernity, allowing for a gradual development that has not impacted too strongly or swiftly on the country's identity or political structures.

Rioting and protests in 2011 encouraged the sultan to concede some of his powers to the Shura.

Members can now suggest new laws and request an audience with ministers to question them on performance.

If the 2011 election were about increasing the powers of the people and distributing the country's oil revenues, 2015 has been overshadowed by economic stagnation and low oil prices.

Around 85 percent of the country's revenues come from oil and gas receipts, and Oman could run an unprecedented $17.67 billion deficit this year.

There has been an effective freeze on public sector recruitment, while many fear that job cuts are inevitable.

[Click to enlarge]


So far, the economic slump has seen 881 Omanis lose their jobs in the past two months, something unimaginable during the boom days - when laws were put in place to protect citizens from summary dismissal.

"Most common issues used in the election campaigns of candidate are those related to economy, for example diversification of income, lifting subsidies on basic materials and fuel, provision of jobs and scholarships," said Muharrmi.

Crunch time

Although the most recent Shura council enjoyed extended powers, its limitations became obvious by the end of its term.

Although Shura members managed to fend off continued suggestions from ministers that subsidies should be cut - a lifeline for poorer Omanis - popular proposals such as banning the sale of alcohol were blocked by the council of ministers.

Requests to question certain ministers on their performance were also denied.

"It is no secret that the approach of many members of the Shura council to the issue of the lifting of subsidies and economic reforms are significantly different from the government approach," said Muharrmi.

Oman is probably one of most vulnerable countries to low oil prices in the region, with smaller oil and financial reserves. 

If the government is forced to scale down the size of the public sector and infrastructure projects, it could lead to a further shrinking of the economy, augmenting the potential for further unrest.

"There is a common feeling that if no major change happens in the government structure and the powers of the Shura council [we] might go back to the pre-2011 era, and there might be a wave of unrest in the community," said Muharrmi.

There are also concerns about the health of the sultan, who recently recovered from a long illness and spent eight months out of the country.

Qaboos returned in March to a hero's welcome, although it has forced many in the country to think of the future without this popular ruler.

Much of the sultan's popularity lies in his gradual but extensive development of the country, which had been fractured by tribal and geographic divides when Qaboos took power in 1970. 

He retained close ties with tribal, religious and business leaders, while encouraging the involvement of young people and women in the development of the country.

This includes the Shura council, and although only a handful of women have been elected to parliament, Qaboos has selected women in leading ministerial posts.

     Many youngsters, although better educated than their forefathers, complain that opportunities are lacking

Future

Fatma al-Harthiya was one of 20 women who stood for election. Although she didn't win, she voiced similar concerns about the economy that the government and many economists have made.

"The most visible challenge I see today is employment in Oman, and the challenge is to create job opportunities - for example, setting up industries to sustain the economy," she said.

Campaigning was quieter than in 2011, amid allegations of vote buying and the disqualification of 20 candidates.

In the end, around half the eligible population went out to vote, including many young Omanis.

Those who spoke to al-Araby appeared to be motivated by high unemployment, low oil prices, and protecting Oman's "identity" from creeping globalisation.

The Shura council now reflects their age group better than before, but this could lead to potential clashes with ministers who opine a smaller government and austerity measures.

Many youngsters, although better educated than their forefathers, complain that opportunities are lacking.

Closing the door to government jobs without providing opporunities to them in the private sector or soft loans to start businesses could affect this group most heavily.

"A clash between the two approaches is inevitable. If the government decided to follow its own approach away from the debates of Shura council members, then such a decision will have serious consequences in Omani general opinions," said Muharrmi.

However, the country is considerably more prosperous and united than it was 45 years ago. 

During the next chapter of the country's history, it would be a natural and sensible step to give young Omanis more responsibilities in political life, particularly as Oman faces up to dwindling oil reserves and a future of uncertainty.

But attaining this could be difficult for Oman's youth in a country where power has traditionally been a closely guarded commodity by a well-entrenched elite.

Follow Paul McLoughlin on Twitter: @pmcloughlin9

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