The Oman Council: How a Visionary Leader Institutionalized the Shura Tradition
Waheb Al Saadi
Waheb Al Saadi is a senior staffer at the Shura Council (the elected house of the Omani Parliament- the Oman Council). The Society assisted him and a group of his colleagues to attend the July 2019 Wroxton Workshop for overseas parliamentarians held at Wroxton College and sponsored by the International Parliamentary Union and Hull University. Waheb writes here in his personal capacity.
This is an important article. It shows how Sultan Qaboos developed the Omani parliament over his reign, rooting it in the long Omani tradition of Shura and drawing on wider democratic practice. The article calls now for the development on the same lines of a better, more flexible and more responsive Omani parliamentary system.
These ideas make a valuable contribution to the series of exchanges between the Oman Council and the Westminster parliament, which will hopefully resume before too long.
Parliamentary systems differ world-wide; practice and institutions vary according to the type of state, the structure of the society and its social composition. Oman has a long tradition of interaction with other civilizations. Its location and resources have always given it an historical importance. This grew with Oman’s expanding role in the Gulf region, with its involvement with Africa and with its connections to the far reaches of Asia and the West. All this has contributed to the richness of Omani culture and to Omanis’ characteristic openness to others. It reflects Oman’s legacy of traditions and customs based on Islam and on Shari’ah, which govern Omanis’ behaviour and how they deal with each other.
This is the background to the development of the Omani parliamentary system through the vision of the late Sultan Qaboos. This drew both on the nation’s historic experience over the centuries and on its Islamic heritage to form a uniquely Omani parliamentary system based on the concept of “Shura”.
What is the meaning and origin of the term “Shura”, and what are its practices? Sultan Qaboos gave this a great deal of thought.
There has been much debate in the West about the meaning of democracy. “Shura” can be seen as a parallel form of democracy in the Islamic world. Both systems consider how the “people” in a state or smaller entity can participate in the dialogue about the greater good of the state and at the same time prevent abuse of power and preserve rights and freedoms.
“Shura” reflects the consultative principle present in Islam since the time of the Prophet, authenticated by the Qur’an and the Prophetic Sunna (Aiena, 2014).
“ So, [O Muhammad], pardon them and ask forgiveness for them and consult them in the matter. And when you have decided, then rely upon Allah . Indeed, Allah loves those who rely [upon Him]”. (Ali’Imran, 159)
“ And those who have responded to their lord and established prayer and whose affair is [determined by] consultation among themselves, and from what We have provided them, they spend.” (Ash’Shuraa, 38)
Even if not systematically organized, the original concept of “Shura” ranked high in the activities of the first four caliphs of the “Rasheedun” Caliphate (Aiena, 2014). It formed a key element in the decision-making process and was always based on free and public discussion.
Differences between “Shura” and democracy lie not only in the Islamic origins of “Shura”, but also in its practices which derive from the specific societies in which it evolved.
The Qur’an does not prescribe particular methods for carrying out consultation or for decision taking, nor does it prescribe any other aspect of these processes. Consequently in every age and in every country scholars have had plenty scope to work out the best solutions to meet the requirements of particular forms of rule.
Contemporary scholars have added three corollaries to the shura principle (Aiena, 2014):
Firstly, Shura is a mandatory form of rule.
Secondly, Shura refers to the community as a whole and not a section thereof; women and other communities must be included.
Thirdly, Shura reposes on the rule of the majority, since it is evident that under the Prophet and the Right-guided caliphs the decisions were based on the opinions of “the overwhelming majority”.
So, how does this brief introduction relate to our topic? Oman, the Sultanate, is considered a part of the Islamic world, with a very rich history of connections with the Arab world, Asia and Africa as well as with the West. The Islamic nature of the Omani state is emphasized in its constitution, “The Basic Law of State” (Articles 1 and 2). This reflects the Omani people’s beliefs and practices, based on the teachings of Islam and the Shari’ah, and on the concept and values of “Shura”. Historically this has underlain all their public deeds, such as the appointment of their leader (the Imam), as well as their private acts, such as marriage.
But the creation of a democratic system which goes beyond just customs and tradition, and is to be cast in binding legislation, means institutionalising the “Shura” process. This requires a solid foundation of popular understanding to ensure healthy growth of the concept and its practices. It is said about democracy that “it is not attained simply by making institutional changes; rather its success and survival depends on the values and beliefs of ordinary citizens” (Alsoudi, 2003).
Sultan Qaboos, having come to the throne in 1970, built over the next 50 years the new and modern state of Oman. The idea of “Shura” was in his mind from the outset. He shaped it as part of his vision of a modern state, drawing on his own ideas, thoughts, and experience. It can be seen developing during his famous annual tours all over Oman as he sought the ideal institutional structure for the country to be set out and implemented in law.
From the earliest days H.M Sultan Qaboos used the terms “Shura”, and “Shura Council”. In an interview in 1971 with Al-Ahram newspaper he said:
“I will be the happiest person when the country’s situation allows the formation of the Shura Council… Our country, definitely, needs a Shura Council at the core of a “Shura-based system”; and this Council - in my view, should include representatives of the people, and it should be able to discuss all matters”.
But the preoccupation at that time, in the early 1970s, was the need to bring stability to the country, as the Sultan explained in the same interview. Stability was a necessary condition for the development of the state’s governance and infrastructure to the point where they would support the emergence of democratic institutions. Stability was also necessary to the creation through education and the media of a receptivity among the population to the concept of “Shura”.
As we have seen, the Sultan from the outset was thinking about and planning for the formation of an election-based institution for the representation of the people, the “Shura Council”. But the priority had to be stability and he did not rush his plans for a democratic process. Too early an adoption of constitutional or parliamentary initiatives or reliance solely on foreign parliamentary and constitutional experts before Omanis were themselves ready to play a responsible part could have set the whole process back.
Sultan Qaboos understood from his deep personal experience the difficulties which Omani society confronted on the ground: poor infrastructure, a poor health system, a poor education system, and political movements of rebels and radical communists. The state was struggling and had yet to secure the recognition of other states in the region.
In addition, Omani society was just seeing the light of freedom and moving towards such limited rights as outdoor lighting, entering Muscat (the capital) freely at night, and travelling between the “Wilayats” of Oman. Society at that time was not yet ready to embrace living under the law in its modern sense.
I think that all this shows that the Sultan fully understood the process of “modernization” as explained by Danial Lerner’s theory about the passing of traditional society in a series of stages and changed practices. It was necessary to take account of Lerner’s argument that “modernity is primarily a state of mind: expectation of progress, propensity to growth, readiness to adapt oneself to change” and that nations need to develop sets of “social processes - secularization, urbanization, industrialization, popular participation - by which this state of mind [comes] to prevail” (Lerner, 1968).
In the same interview with Al Ahram in 1971 Sultan Qaboos said:
“I believe that the constitution must be drawn up and based on experience. ...We cannot build the constitution based on the assumption that we live in a country, where one group of its people lives with the mentality of the twentieth century, and another lives with the mentality of the eighteenth century. And our experience during the coming stage will create for us the appropriate atmosphere and the right basis for preparing and forming the constitution”,
“It may be easy to issue a royal decree to establish the “Shura Council” tomorrow, but do you think it is possible to form the Shura Council in the way to which we aspire, under the current conditions of our people? Definitely: No!.. Therefore, I am seeking - first - to provide the atmosphere, which permits the formation of the righteous person, so that the outcomes of the election of the Shura Council is healthy, and the formation of the righteous person will only be achieved - as I mentioned with the scientific renaissance, which can provide us with the required numbers of competencies”
As he said, it is important to take account of the capacity of the people, of their readiness for change and of the individual level of culture in society. It was not the Sultan’s intention just to take procedures and practices from other countries and to seek to implant them in Oman, rather it was to benefit from the experience of other countries.
A decade later, in 1981, came the first stage of implementation when the national Consultative Council was established by Royal Decree 81/1981. This was an advisory body which would give the government its views on economic and social development issues. The Council was formed of 45 members individually appointed by royal decree. They were drawn from the public sector, civil society, the private sector, and also included representatives of the separate regions. Three years later the membership was increased to 55.
A further decade passed as the State developed and the Sultan continued his policy of engaging citizens in formulating and reviewing national policy and legislation. At the same time the membership of the Council was adjusted to reflect the new administrative regions. In 1991 a further Royal Decree 94 / 1991 established a "Shura Council" with new responsibilities broadening its role in the legislative and political direction of the country. The Shura Council was given powers to review social and economic laws prior to their promulgation as well as to participate in the preparation of successive five year development plans. It also began to review public services and utilities, welfare and social services, and to make recommendations for their improvement, so developing a relationship with the government and its representatives -- ministries, government agencies and public bodies. The Shura Council had 59 members with representation from each governorate. Women became eligible for election to the Council with two women elected in 1994 and two in 1997.
Following the promulgation in 1996 of the Omani constitution in Royal Decree 101/1996 “The Basic Law of State” a further Royal Decree 86/1997 established a second parliamentary chamber, the State Council. The aim was to "broaden the base of participation, in a way that benefits from the expertise of scholars and specialists, and contributes to the implementation of a comprehensive development strategy and service to the public good”. A further Royal Decree then formally inaugurated the full Oman Council, a two chamber parliament with the elected Shura Council and the new Council of State whose members were appointed by Royal Decree for each five year session.
The relationship between the two houses and their separate procedures and powers are set out in the 1997 Royal Decrees. Those of the Shura Council are essentially the same as those set out in the 1991 legislation but with the addition of some new responsibilities for the Council and its Chairman and provisions for its working jointly with the State Council.
As we have seen, the Omani parliamentary experience has evolved steadily over the years. This approach was reflected in the response of the Omani authorities to sudden new developments throughout the Arab world at the beginning of the second decade of the 2000s. There were several measures, set out in Royal Decree 99/2011. This contained amendments to the Basic Law with new provisions relating to the Oman Council in general, and to the Shura Council, the elected chamber, in particular.
The Royal Decree began with this introductory paragraph: “Believing in the importance of developing the Shura march in the country in the interest of the state and its citizens, and affirming the importance of participation by all members of society in the comprehensive development process, in line with what is needed to bring about its goals…..”
This Decree sparked a new era for both chambers of the Oman Council and especially for the Shura Council. The topics discussed, the parliamentary tools used in the exercise of parliamentary oversight of government actions, as well as the process of legislation and members’ interaction with the people all contributed to the evolution of the Oman Council. It is now a decade since the last amendment to the Basic Law and it is clear that given all the experience that has accumulated of the advantages and disadvantages of the system it is time for a further review. This could open the way to a more effective parliamentary system, but still based on the Omani form of “Shura” which is already seen around the world as a proven democratic process led by Oman.
Not only was framing the constitutional framework and procedures for the Oman Council important to Sultan Qaboos, but so too was instilling a culture of debate. He also sought to ensure acceptance of the Council’s authority as an integral part of the Shura-based State. To these ends he used his inaugural speech at each successive parliamentary session to set out themes for parliamentary debate as well as the foundations and principles on which this was to be based. Over the years he outlined a number of specific themes:
1. The need for a philosophy and set of values for the Shura process based on the customs, traditions and practices of Omani society.
2. The need also to draw on aspects of Shura and its political application as experienced over Oman’s long history.
3. Human development as a pillar of development
4. The importance of the principles and tenets of the Sultanate's foreign policy.
5. The importance of the national role played by the Sultan's armed forces.
6. The importance of the role of the private sector in development.
7. The main features of the successive five-year development plans with a focus on vital sectors such as education.
8. A focus on the roles of specific sections of society, in particular women and youth.
9. The principles and values of the renaissance and the importance of expanding popular participation.
To conclude, the Sultanate has a rich history of customs, traditions, and authentic practices which have created a unique society and set of institutions. These have been developed by people believing in the importance of taking full account of the Omani tradition while at the same time benefiting from the experience of Oman’s allies and more widely from that of other societies.
The result is the creation of Omani institutions with democratic characteristics but close to the Shura tradition. Today we need to continue to look to the Shura heritage while working to update our parliamentary institutions and practices. That requires a deep and comprehensive understanding of each era of Oman’s history and society so that we can develop a better, more flexible and more responsive parliamentary system.
It is also important to the process that we continue to compare our Shura system with parliamentary systems elsewhere that share the same Islamic principles, although they may differ in practice and procedure. We should also draw on the long and complex historic process which saw the development and institutionalisation of the concept of democracy.
Perhaps ultimately the future of our Shura institution will lie in the concept encapsulated by P. G. Thomas in 2009: “creating a more meaningful dialogue in the parliament, will depend more on changes to the intersecting cultures of the legislature, government and the public service than on organisational and procedural reforms to any of those institutions”.
Aiena, C. (2014). SHURACRACY AS ISLAMIC DEMOCRACY. Wembley: Islamic Human Rights Commision.
Al-Ahram newspaper. (1971, July 8). An interview with H.M Sultan Qaboos. Retrieved from H.M Sultan Qaboos Webpage: www.sultanqaboos.net
Alsoudi, A. (2003). Islam and Democracy in the Arab World. International Journal of the Humanities, 1.
Lerner, D. (1968). The Passing of Traditional Society- Modernizing the Middle East (4th Printing). New York: The Free Press.
Royal Decrees. 84/1981-85/1981-86/1981-94/1991-97/1991-112/1994-101/1996-86/1997-99/2011. Muscat: Ministry of Legal Affairs.
Takriti, b. (2019). Monsoon Revolution: Republicans, Sultans, and Empires in Oman, 1965-1976. Beirut: Jadawel.
Thomas, P. G. (2009). Parliament Scrutiny of Government Performance in Australia. The Australian Journal of Public Administration, 373-.