Twelve years ago, revolutionary fervor shook the Middle East and North Africa. The wealthy Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members experienced far less civil unrest during the 2010-11 uprisings compared to Libya, Syria, and other states in the region. However, a milder form of Arab Spring activism extended into several Gulf states, including Oman. Young citizens of the “sleepy Sultanate” held a series of rare protests in Sohar and Muscat to demand greater employment opportunities, economic reforms, better salaries, and democratic change.
The late Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said saw a need to respond to these unprecedented protests in ways that would assuage public discontent. Rather than resorting to brute force, as some Arab regimes did, Qaboos pushed ahead with targeted reforms that created 50,000 public sector jobs and provided better unemployment benefits. The Sultan went a step further, issuing a royal decree in 2011 that established 11 Municipal Councils whose members would be democratically elected.
Thirty Years of Increasing Citizen Participation
To properly understand the Municipal Council elections in a greater historical context, one must go back a few decades to Qaboos’ earlier reforms that similarly aimed to grant citizens more sway in the policymaking space.
In 1991, Oman established the Majlis al-Shura, or Consultative Assembly. Three years later, the Sultanate became the first member of the GCC to grant women the right to vote and seek public office, at least in the Muscat Governorate. Dr. Joseph A. Kechichian, a senior fellow at the King Faisal Centre in Riyadh, wrote that those reforms were “a concrete example not only of Qaboos’ desire to widen the parameters of decision-making in the Sultanate, but also his keen awareness that autocratic rule was on its way out.”
By 2003, Oman held the first election open to all of the country’s voting-age citizens. In that vote, 491 men and 15 women stood for seats within the Majlis al-Shura, and 51 members of the consultative body secured a second term. As the lower house in the bicameral Council of Oman, the Majlis al-Shura is the Sultanate’s only national body entirely comprised of democratically elected members. The Consultative Assembly is widely regarded as the most democratically advanced body in the GCC, second only to Kuwait’s National Assembly. The Council of Oman’s upper house is the Majlis ad-Dawla al-ʿUmāniyyi, or State Council, which remains entirely appointed by the sultan.
The 2011 decree that established the Municipal Councils, however, was especially important because it expanded the scope of citizen participation in Oman’s structures of governance. Although they lack the Majlis al-Shura’s influence and authority, the Municipal Councils make recommendations to the ministries that are based on the interests of each province and its residents.
The first Municipal Council elections took place in 2012, followed by a second round in 2016. Following the outbreak of COVID-19, Omani authorities postponed the 2020 Municipal Council election to late 2022; the vote was ultimately held on Christmas Day. A total of 727 candidates, including 27 women, ran to fill 126 seats, and 288,469 Omani voters cast their ballots. Voter turnout was highest in Al Wusta Governorate at 79.3 percent, far surpassing the nationwide figure of 39.42 percent.
The 2022 Municipal Council election was Oman’s first election under Sultan Haitham bin Tariq Al Said, who succeeded Sultan Qaboos after he passed away in January 2020. Sultan Haitham, Qaboos’ cousin, has overseen a period of significant reforms and structural transformation in Oman, as the country works to diversify its economy beyond hydrocarbons. Under his leadership, the Municipal Council has gained greater authority and public legitimacy.
The Intakheb Application
Last month’s vote was a historic first; never before had an Arab country held an election entirely through a mobile application. Relying on the Intakheb app, this election’s e-voting program was geared toward “using the latest technologies to ease processes, to simplify the user experience, as well as to make it easy for citizens to participate in elections and to enjoy different government services,” Oman’s Undersecretary for Communications and Information Technology, Dr. Ali Al Shidhani, told reporters in Muscat on December 25.
The advanced electronic voting system makes the process much more convenient for voters and fits into the Sultanate’s grander reform agenda. “The transparent electoral process allows citizens to choose their representatives in the Municipal Councils, which enhances the participatory citizenship in development in all sectors throughout the country,” Oman’s Minister of Information, Dr Abdulla Al-Harrasi, told the author. “This reinforces the national plan of a decentralized administration in the Sultanate of Oman, which gives more responsibilities to the regional governorates.”
Moving the voting process online requires fewer resources and less effort from the state to coordinate. According to Talal Al Saadi, a rapporteur of the main elections committee, the introduction of Intakheb reduced the demand for election workers 16-fold and decreased the time needed to fully implement the election from several months to one week.
Another benefit of digitizing the election is that it allows Oman’s education system to continue to function during an election. In past Municipal Council elections, the government had to temporarily shut down schools to serve as voting centers. During the 2016 election, 107 schools across the country were closed. However, no schools were required to temporarily shut down for last month’s election due to the implementation of e-voting. Digitized voting is also far more environmentally friendly as it spares hundreds of thousands of Omanis the hassle of driving to polling locations and saves the government reams of paper.
Ultimately, December’s Municipal Council election has set a standard for electoral processes in the Sultanate The electronic voting process occurred without technical problems, electoral disputes, or any other major hiccups. Following Intakheb’s success, authorities in Muscat were quick to confirm that Oman’s next Majlis al-Shura election, set for late 2023, would also take place digitally through the app, and suggested that future elections could be run along similar lines. Dr. Shidhani emphasized that the use of a mobile app for voting would “make the process much easier and send a signal to the world that Oman is an advanced country when it comes to utilization and adoption of technology.”
Disclaimer: The author conducted research on the 2022 Omani Municipal Council election during a trip to Muscat in late 2022 which was supported by Oman’s Ministry of Information.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.