Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Democratic Development in Oman

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Democratic Development in Oman

Article excerpt

Everyone accepts a one size fits all model cannot deliver successful democratic reform. But it is less widely understood that the process is open-ended, with no predetermined finishing line. Development depends on a political version of bio-diversity, in which democracy emerges organically out of existing local traditions and practices. In the case of Oman a deeply rooted tradition of consultative rule, and the distinctive philosophy of Ibadism has been shaping democratic development for 30 years.

In the debate over democratic reform in the Middle East nearly everyone involved is careful to show they understand there can be no "one size fits all solution" imposed upon the region from outside. It is widely, if not universally, recognized that the imposition of a standard political system would be both impossible and counter-productive. In order to support regional advocates for change, the United States government, too, acknowledges that the diversity of the countries and peoples engaged in the process must be respected.

However, this does not prevent many policy makers and commentators conducting comparative exercises in which the progress towards democracy is evaluated either in relation to political systems already accepted as being democratic, or in relation to one another, or both. In many instances, surveys of the region ask which countries are ahead and which behind in their progress towards the goal of democracy.

If there were a fuller understanding of the complex and various political ecologies of the region, it would be readily understood that such judgments are missing the point. They assume, for example, there is a common destination. The comparative evaluation of progress assumes a finishing-line, which marks the point at which a country becomes democratic. It also assumes a finishing-line demarcated according to the values, institutions, and social practices of existing, mainly Western, democracies. It does not accommodate the possibility that the process of political development currently under way in the countries of the region may be going in different directions. If one size is not enough for all, nor is one finishing-line. In some cases, the process of political development is both gradual and experimental, and therefore there may be no specific finishing-line in mind. While it would perhaps be wrong to characterize such gradual and cautious processes as "continual revolution," it might be equally misleading to suppose that each is headed towards a common goal, and further, that the common goal in question is either identical to or even closely resembles the kind of democratic systems with which we are familiar in the West.

In a well-informed and valuable recent contribution to this journal, Michael Herb examines the movements towards democracy achieved by Arab monarchies (Morocco, Jordan, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia). Herb is surely correct to claim that his project of comparison between the Arab parliaments he studies and parliaments elsewhere in the world may "provide us with some insights to the democratic potential of these parliaments, and it can help us to understand better the role of elected parliaments in these authoritarian regimes."1 However, the comparative exercise to some extent assumes a relationship between constitutional monarchies in Europe and the Arab monarchies discussed, in which the Arab monarchies are implicitly valued to the extent that they appear to be emulating the European models. The factors chosen to assess the extent of progress towards democracy (the implicit but never quite defined finishing-line) are derived from European practice (the existence of political parties, constitutionally defined powers for parliaments, electioneering).

Other factors that might be used in the countries in question to evaluate the political process are not considered, partly, perhaps, because they would not produce a measurement of how far there still might be to go before the finishing-line is reached. …

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