Oman’s human rights record has been subject to widespread criticism since the end of 2015. The criticism, which has been made by well-known international organizations, has concentrated on two main issues: the rights of migrant workers, specifically female domestic workers, and issues related to freedom of speech and freedom of the press, both of which declined significantly in the first half of 2016.
Oman is the only Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) country that has not introduced clear legislation with respect to the rights of migrant workers, according to a 2014 study conducted by the International Trade Union Confederation. However, the study also found that the legislation in place in other GCC countries does not meet applicable international standards, particularly in relation to the free movement of labourers within a single country or outside it. In other words, these countries are violating workers’ rights, the study claims. Earlier this year, Oman witnessed discussions and deliberations between the Omani Shura Council, the Council of Ministers, and the Chamber of Commerce and Industry on the issuance of a new labour law that grants migrant workers better rights, according to local press.
At the same time, Oman is one of the first Gulf states to allow the establishment of trade unions and federations. In July 2006, amendments to the labour law under Royal Decree No. (74/2006) approved the formation of trade unions and provided for the establishment of the General Federation of Oman Trade Unions. However, the federation and other trade unions are particularly concerned with the rights of Omani workers, whereas migrant workers do not have anyone to defend their rights except for the embassies of the countries they come from.
Female Domestic Workers: Human Trafficking and Slavery
In July 2016, the New York-based Human Rights Watch issued an extensive report about the conditions of female domestic workers in Oman, titled ‘Domestic Workers Trafficked, Trapped’. The report demanded that the Omani authorities take immediate steps to reform the restrictive immigration system that puts migrant workers at the mercy of their employers, to guarantee female domestic workers the same legal protection enjoyed by other workers, and to investigate all possible cases of human trafficking, forced labour and slavery. Human Rights Watch based the content of the report on personal interviews with 59 female domestic workers, who were said to live in servitude or slavery-like conditions. There are an estimated 130,000 female domestic workers in Oman, mostly from the Philippines, Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Ethiopia. The Oman Human Rights Commission rejected the report on the grounds that it was not methodological. The commission’s own report said that migrant workers enjoy the rights provided for in the documented work contracts and that the country’s labour law grants migrant workers the right to file complaints and grievances.
In a 27 August 2016 article, the English-language Times of Oman questioned the working hours of migrant workers and the holidays and annual bonuses they receive. The newspaper noted that most of those who hire female domestic workers in Oman do not ask these questions, although they should. The article came as the government announced plans to issue a new labour law, in an attempt to improve the conditions of migrant workers in the country.
Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Press
Migrant workers’ rights do not concern many Omanis, except for some human rights activists and intellectuals. However, the recent crackdown on several Omani writers and journalists has been a subject of national debate, aided by social media and other means of mass communication. In the past eight months, the Police Special Section, which is the executive arm of the Internal Security Agency, has arrested seven Omani writers and journalists for the content of their writing, which the authorities deemed to have crossed the red line they draw for freedom of speech. Of those arrested, four were released, three others were put on trial and one remains in custody.
On 20 December 2015, poet and television producer Nasser al-Badri was summoned by the Police Special Section and detained for 12 days without charge and without trial. The Omani Observatory for Human Rights said that al-Badri was detained because of tweets he posted criticising Sultan Qaboos and the state of the country’s economy. Article 41 of Oman’s statute (constitution) criminalizes any criticism of the sultan, stating that the sultan’s ‘person is inviolable and must be respected and his orders must be obeyed’.
On 15 April 2016, writer and filmmaker Abdullah Habib was also summoned by the Police Special Section and detained for about three weeks for his Facebook posts. Habib’s detention came as a shock to a large number of writers and intellectuals in Oman and abroad because of his international standing and the unsensational nature of his writing. They rallied to his aid, issuing a statement calling for his immediate release. One of those who supported the statement was Sulaiman Maamari, Habib’s friend and a presenter on Oman’s state-run radio. The authorities’ response was surprising. Instead of releasing Habib, the authorities detained Maamari too, holding him for 22 days. Omani and Arab intellectuals issued another statement denouncing this latest detention. The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, based in Cairo, also called for his immediate release. Maamari is considered to be one of the most prominent voices that demanded change and reform in 2011. On 25 July 2016, security authorities in Oman detained al-Mutassem al-Bahlani, editor-in-chief of Al-Falaq online newspaper, for what was labelled his demands for change and new blood in the Omani government. Al-Bahlani resigned from his position after his release. However, unlike colleagues who had been detained before him, he was imprisoned for only two days.
On 14 August 2016, leading novelist Hammoud Shukaili was arrested and was still in custody at the time of writing. Although the authorities did not reveal the reasons for Shukaili’s detention, they are likely linked to his Facebook posts, which criticise corruption and the crackdown on his fellow writers and journalists.
Al-Zaman Newspaper: The Case continues
The most recent case that has garnered national attention relates to al-Zaman newspaper, the editor-in-chief and two journalists of which were arrested over a 26 July 2016 front-page article accusing the president of the Supreme Court, the head of the highest judicial authority in Oman, of corruption and abuse of power. The whereabouts of Ibrahim Maamari, the editor-in-chief, were unknown until he appeared in court on 15 August 2016.
On 9 August 2016, the Omani Information Minister issued a decree ‘banning the publication or circulation of al-Zaman by any means, including electronically’. On 15 August 2016, three of the newspaper’s journalists were put on trial on charges related to defaming the institution of the judiciary. The Oman Commission for Human Rights said that it attended the proceedings of the first session of the trial. The case was adjourned to 22 August 2016 to enable the journalists’ lawyer to study the case files and meet with the accused, who remained in custody.
Widespread International Criticism
The Omani government has been widely criticised by many international organisations defending freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Reporters Without Borders issued a statement condemning the arrest of al-Zaman’s editor-in-chief. The International Commission for the Protection of Journalists followed suit and issued a statement criticising the crackdown on Omani journalists. Meanwhile, Amnesty International described the suffering of the al-Zaman journalists as punishment handed down by Omani authorities for performing their professional duty.
Locally, journalists and activists created the Twitter hashtag ‘#Journalism_Is _Not_A _Crime’, demanding freedom for their colleagues. Turki al-Balushi, journalist and publisher of al-Balad online newspaper, wrote on Twitter: ‘My conscience, experience and work as a journalist in #Oman oblige me not to remain silent about what is happening to my colleagues; no matter what is said about them, I will not accept what is happening to them because of one profession that we share.’ For his part, Riyad al-Balushi tweeted: ‘Punishing those who abused power and office would have been better than putting in prison the people who uncovered fraud.’ Meanwhile, Jaber al-Ajmi wrote: ‘This newspaper has been treated as a criminal one, perhaps because it is the only newspaper that tried to apply the principles of journalism so professionally and skillfully!’
Nevertheless, the official news agency quoted a brief statement by the Omani authorities saying that the newspaper’s publication of the article was ‘a flagrant violation of the limits and ethics of freedom of speech’ and ‘undermines the prestige of one of the most important authorities on which the state is based; namely, the judicial authority’. Therefore, it does not seem that the government will yield to pressure applied by local public opinion or international organisations.
Due to the unprecedented blows dealt to freedom of speech and freedom of the press in Oman in the first half of the year, Oman’s global freedom ranking has dropped and is expected to drop further in the coming years.
Amnesty International’s annual report on human rights around the world (2015/2016) has revealed that the Omani authorities have intensified their arrests and harassment of journalists, writers, human rights activists and critics of the government, despite promises to take into account recommendations made by the United Nations Human Rights Council during a periodic session in November 2015, at which the Oman file was discussed. In the same context, Freedom House, a watchdog organisation, gave Oman a freedom ranking of 5.5, which is only 1.5 points higher than the worst countries in the world.
It remains unclear how the government plans to improve its human rights record, and whether it is even interested in doing so.