The Sultanate of Oman is a hereditary monarchy ruled by Sultan Qaboos bin Sa'id, who acceded to the throne in 1970. He appoints and presides over the Council of Ministers, which is responsible for administering the country's governmental institutions. In 1996 the Sultan promulgated the "Basic Law," which defines certain rights and privileges for all citizens and enshrines the role of the Majlis Oman, a two-chamber representative advisory institution. Members of the upper house of this body (the Majlis al-Dawla) are appointed by the Sultan; members of the lower house (the Majlis al-Shura) are directly elected by universal suffrage every four years. In October 2007 approximately 245,000 registered voters participated in generally free and fair elections for all 84 seats in the Majlis al-Shura. Political parties are not permitted, and the legislative powers of the Majlis Oman are significantly limited. The government restricted freedoms of speech, press, assembly, religion, and association. Despite legislated equality for women, discrimination and domestic violence persisted due to social and cultural factors. There was a lack of sufficient legal protection and enforcement to secure the rights of migrant workers. There were reports that expatriate laborers, particularly domestic workers, were placed in situations amounting to forced labor and that some suffered abuse.
The advancement of democratic principles, practices, and values is a top U.S. government priority in the country. U.S. officials regularly discuss human rights and democracy-related topics with government officials, including at senior levels. In planning and implementing programs designed to increase public participation in governance and strengthen civil society, the U.S. government consults regularly with NGOs and local activists. In the absence of political parties and opposition groups, the ambassador often invites local proponents of reform and human rights to embassy events to display U.S. support for and encourage their activities.
The United States remains particularly focused on the following key areas: developing the capacity of the democratically elected Majlis al-Shura to help it prepare for expanded legislative functions; assisting the judiciary in its role to protect citizen rights and provide oversight of government; supporting the development of labor unions and their ability to promote democratic principles with civil society; and supporting the network of local women's associations as a means of increasing female participation in all aspects of society. Labor unions and women's associations are the best potential civil society partners.
The U.S. government continues to use a variety of programs, the full range of public diplomacy tools, and other resources to partner with local stakeholders as the country transitions towards greater public participation in governance and a more active civil society. Reflecting focus areas, U.S.-funded training programs are helping to improve the capabilities of the Majlis al-Shura (both members and staff), as well as imparting new skills and knowledge to judges and lawyers to enhance the rule of law. The United States is also helping to teach democratic principles and student leadership skills in educational institutions. U.S. grants to local NGOs and professional associations are assisting in the development of civil society.
Public diplomacy assets, including exchanges and in-country programming, activities at the six American Corners (housed at Omani universities), and cooperative projects with local partners, seek to complement program activities and the embassy's ongoing dialogue with the government on topics related to democracy and human rights. The embassy's public diplomacy activities build on strong foundations in education at all levels, interaction with civil society activists and organizations, and the press. Special strengths include a growing program alumni network; solid relationships with local women's groups, as women make up at least 50 percent of most public diplomacy exchange programs; and close ties with private colleges and universities, which are active in developing student leadership. With greater private ownership of both print and electronic media, the United States will engage more extensively in activities aimed at professionalizing the media and developing reporting capacity.
The U.S. government is actively engaged in efforts to combat trafficking in persons in the country. U.S. dialogue with government officials has raised the level of awareness of this subject within the government and, consequently, has led to greater actions by the government to combat this global problem. A U.S.-funded consultant provided expert advice and guidance to the writers of the country's draft comprehensive antitrafficking law.
U.S.-funded programs are also assisting the country's fledgling labor unions, which can serve as grassroots examples of democracy while protecting workers' rights, to adopt international best practices as they organize and hold elections. U.S. assistance to women's groups and female leaders is longstanding. One ongoing U.S.-funded program expands awareness, employment opportunities, and networking ability for local women through technology training.