Oman's new parliament law shrouds budget talks in secrecy

FILE PHOTO: Sultan Haitham bin Tariq al-Said gives a speech after being sworn in before the royal family council in Muscat, Oman January 11, 2020. REUTERS/Sultan Al Hasani/

DUBAI (Reuters) - Oman has introduced a new law for parliament stipulating that state budget talks and the questioning of ministers should be carried out in secret, reducing transparency as the indebted state tries to tackle its creaking finances and shore up the economy.

Since assuming power a year ago, Sultan Haitham bin Tariq al-Said has overhauled government and state entities and begun pushing through sensitive fiscal reforms such as reductions in subsidies and the introduction of a value-added tax, which had dragged down his predecessor the late Sultan Qaboos.

Last week, the sultanate's ruler announced a constitutional shakeup that included the appointment of a crown prince for the first time and new rules on how the bicameral parliament, the Council of Oman, would work.

The new law, published in the official gazette on Sunday, states that discussions in both the elected lower house and the appointed upper house on draft development plans and the state budget should be conducted in secret as should sessions for the questioning of ministers. The previous Basic Law did not specify such secrecy.

S&P Global Ratings said on Sunday it believed fiscal austerity measures would be introduced gradually "to maintain socio-economic stability" in a country that saw Arab Spring-like protests in 2011 over unemployment, corruption and political reform.

It said that recent institutional reforms including establishing a clear line of succession would improve predictability and political stability but that high fiscal and external deficits, subdued economic growth and high youth unemployment still presented significant challenges.

Oman, a small oil producer, has piled up debt at breakneck speed in the past few years and its finances have been battered by low oil prices and the coronavirus pandemic.

Rated sub-investment grade by all major credit rating agencies, it faces a widening deficit and large debt maturities in the next few years.

(Reporting by Lisa Barrington, Aziz El Yaakoubi and Davide Barbuscia; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

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