The political system of any country largely predetermines and shapes all aspects of its development and existence, including social, economic, military, and other domains. Thus, a political system is a significant factor to be considered when analyzing and comparing countries in order to identify essential problems and threats, as well as single out opportunities and strengths that may provide a prominent place in the international geopolitical arena. It is especially revealing and important to study political systems of neighboring countries since they must share some features in common due to their geographical and historical proximity. However, it is often not the case in the modern world. Hence, the current paper aims at providing a comparative analysis of two Middle East countries, i.e. Oman and the United Arab Emirates. In general, the Middle East has been recently in the center of international attention due to several reasons. They include its traditional affiliation with terrorism, the Arab Spring, vast natural resources, rapid economic development of some nations, poor economic conditions of other countries, human rights, gender inequality, and other issues that draw the attention of scholars representing various disciplines and world community. Although these two countries are neighbors and share some similarities in terms of political systems, diverging histories of their development, economic and current sociopolitical conditions make them somewhat different in this respect.
Oman and the UAE share about 600 kilometers border, but they have developed and matured as sovereign countries with peculiar yet different customs and laws. A full name of the first country is Sultanate of Oman, which locals call Saltanat Uman (Index Mundi). The second country conventionally called the United Arab Emirates is locally referred to as Al Imarat al Arabiyah al Muttahidah (Index Mundi). Oman is typically considered a country with middle-sized GDP that has been developing into its current form since 1970 when the present Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al-Said replaced his father on the throne after a period of long civil conflicts. However, Oman has been a relatively independent and sovereign country since the end of the 17th century (Index Mundi). In turn, the United Arab Emirates gained independence from the UK that controlled it since the 19th century only in the 1970s (Index Mundi). Transformation of a former poor colony into today’s highly modern country that leads the world in many respects has been a remarkable and speedy process. Nowadays, the UAE is among the richest countries in the world with a steady economic development, which is guaranteed to continue because it has recently diversified its economy so that only 25% fall upon oil and natural gas industries that continue to dominate in Oman. It is supposed that Oman’s and the UAE’s current development has occurred thanks to the efforts and initiatives of their rulers.
In Oman, the form of government is an absolute monarchy, which means that the monarch controls all branches of power. It comprises eleven governorates called muhafazat with the capital in Muscat, all of which have local governments but are still subordinated to the monarch who is the sole person in the country holding all power in his hands. In fact, Oman is a unique monarchy in the Middle East since its political system and government is extremely personalized and depends on one person, i.e. sultan Qaboos, who has managed to create a cult of personality that older generations of Omanis reverently follow. However, the young population does not feel an inherently unbreakable link with the monarch who has raised the country from extreme poverty after seizing the throne in 1970. Therefore, they often complain about “deep-seated flaws in the state” built and maintained by Qaboos, hence being the driving force of political and social protests. The sultan’s decree of 1975 stipulated that Qaboos was “the source of all laws” and the one to adopt the Basic Law of the State in 1996 that since had served as the constitution. Qaboos heads all the branches of power and has the authority to make ultimate decisions on all issues, while also appointing the cabinet of ministers who are simply afraid to do or say anything that might lead to their dismissal. Besides, political parties and political gatherings are prohibited in Oman. Once powerful opposition called the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman is now inactive (Sultanate of Oman). Despite calls for a reformation of the political system, Qaboos refuses to weaken personalization of the political system by claiming that:
In this part of the world, giving too much power too fast can still be exploited. Elections in many countries mean having the army prevent bloodshed. Is this democracy?...No. They are really just power struggles (Miller, 1997).
The legislature body comprised of the State Council or Majlis al-Dawla and the Consultative Council or Majlis al-Shura aid and consult Qaboos. The former has 84 members all of whom are appointed by the sultan, while the latter is elected based on the universal suffrage with the recent elections taking place in 2011. Besides, Qaboos has promised to grant the Council of Oman greater legislative powers as a result of massive protests of 2011 and 2012.
In turn, the form of government of the UAE is referred to as “federal presidential elected monarchy” since it consists of seven emirates with each being ruled by an absolute hereditary monarch (Helen Ziegler & Associates). Powers of each branch are specified in the Constitution drafted by seven emirs in 1996 after gaining independence (UAEinteract). The constitution, in particular Articles 120 and 121 clearly divided powers between federal and local governments allowing the former to control foreign affairs, security, education, health, currency, post, communication services, air traffic, banking, and some other aspects (UAEinteract). The UAE is headed by a president elected out of seven emirs sitting in the Supreme Council that also appoints a vice-president out of them for a term of five years (UEAinteract). The present president is Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan (UEAinteract). The president appoints ministers to the cabinet headed by a prime minister who is also a vice-president (Helen Ziegler & Associates). The Federal National Council that consists of 20 members appointed by the emirs and 20 elected members represent the legislative branch (Helen Ziegler & Associates). The first elections in the UAE occurred in 2006 as a part of the country’s program aimed at governmental development (UAEinteract). Political parties are prohibited in the country and members are elected as individuals. However, the government has decided to reform and, thus, improve all branches by implementing the UAE Government Strategy as, according to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, “the changing times and the nature of the challenges prompt us to think in a different way and to adopt international best practices in the area of public administration” (UAEinteract). Nevertheless, the political system of the country is as authoritative as in Oman with the only difference consisting in the number of monarchs. Protests of 2011 and 2012, as well as any political oppositions, are harshly subdued with activists being imprisoned and tortured. Thus, one of the prisoners of conscience states that “Westerners come here and see the malls and the tall buildings and they think that means we are free. But this business, these buildings – who are they for? This is a dictatorship. The royal family thinks they own the country, and the people are their servants. There is no freedom here”. The same applies to Oman where the sultan has granted citizens only a small share of political freedom with no real impact on their life, while harshening measures aimed at silencing opposition activists.
Withal as evident above Oman and the UAE share much in common in terms of political systems that are based on the centralized governance and absolute monarchy. Even though the latter has seven emirs with one president that does not resemble a conventional notion of the presidency as accepted in the West. Both countries are harsh on protesters and do not allow political parties. In the wake of protests inspired by the Arab Spring, they have made minimum concessions and organized elections to legislative bodies, yet these bodies do not have real power. It seems that their proximity makes them similar in terms of political systems even though their economic situations are different. However, both countries manage to create a decorum of civility and human rights protection and appreciation in the eyes of the West when, in fact, they have never lost control and power, thus satisfying only some demands for greater political freedom and silencing anyone brave enough to voice concerns in this respect.