Last month, the Sultan of Oman issued a brand new constitution that made the headlines for setting a new mechanism for the succession of power and for designating a crown prince. However, something that was overshadowed by these groundbreaking developments is the recognition of the right to private life in Article 36 of this new constitution – a right that was not previously recognised in such a manner in Oman.
This is not to say that Omani law did not protect privacy at all in the past, but the previous constitution recognised only the right to private communications, which is an extremely narrow component of the right to privacy. The right to private communications protects against surveillance and wiretapping, and it does not cover fundamental aspects of the modern understanding of privacy which includes the right to the protection of personal data, the right not to be bothered by spam, the right to be forgotten, and many other aspects of the right to privacy that we need to have in order to live with dignity on the internet today.
The Omani journey to the constitutional recognition of the right to private life took decades. The earliest recognition by the Omani legal system of the right to privacy as a concept was in the Press and Publications Law of 1984, which prohibited in Article 30 the publication by the press of information relating to the secrets of private life. Over the years, this developed into more sophisticated sectoral laws and regulations such as the protection of the personal data of customers in the banking sectors under the Banking Law of 2000, the protection of personal data by those engaging in electronic transactions and electronic certification services under the Electronic Transactions Law of 2008, the protection of the personal data of customers in the telecom industry under the TRA’s Data Protection Guidelines of 2009, and the protection of the persona data of patients under the Medical Profession Law of 2019. In addition to those sectoral legal instruments, the Cybercrime Law of 2011 was the first to criminalise acts that violate the private life of others, but limited this protection to violations committed using technological means. More recently, the Penal Law of 2018 also made it a criminal offense to disseminate news or photographs that violate the private life of an individual.
The new recognition of the right to private life as a constitutional right is a milestone for the Omani legal system due to the fact that this right is now recognised without any caveats or sectoral limitations in the highest legal instrument the country can have. However, like other fundamental rights recognised by the Omani constitution, the right to private life must be translated into specific laws and regulations for it to have an impact on the daily lives of individuals. The Omani government has been working on a data protection law for almost a decade now, and hopefully, this renewed recognition of the importance of the right to privacy by the constitution will help make this new law become a reality soon.