A new Maritime Law has come into force in the Sultanate of Oman.
The new Law is to be welcomed for its clarity and comprehensiveness. Although the Sultanate of Oman is not a signatory to the 1924 Hague Rules in relation to Bills of Lading nor the 1974 Athens Convention in relation to carriage of passengers, we now see a modern local codification of equivalent protections. In the many maritime areas where Oman has ratified the fundamental IMO Conventions, we see the addition of local colour without detracting from the Flag State and Port State obligations in each case.
Issued on 30 March 2023, the Decree No.19/2023 'On the Issuance of the Maritime Law' ("the Law") is a comprehensive and codifying piece of legislation that replaces the 1981 Decree No.35/1981 'Promulgating the Maritime Code' ("the 1981 Code"). While the Law contains many echoes of the 1981 Code, the detailed provisions have been entirely re-written. As with any new law, this may raise novel questions of interpretation in issues arising as compared to its predecessor. However, the structure of the new Law is admirable. Broadly, the Law has been simplified and improved with an updated approach and language, and certain wholly new provisions.
The new Law benefits from a set of key definitions, provided at the outset, although frustratingly these do not appear in alphabetical order. Like the 1981 Code it replaces, the Law is arranged by subject matter. Whereas the 1981 Code includes Books, Titles, Chapters and Articles; the Law adopts a structure of Titles, Chapters, Subchapters and Articles.
Title 1 of the Law contains general provisions. The Law describes the concept of a 'Ship' and a 'Marine Unit', and entirely avoids the terminology of a 'vessel'. In contrast to many jurisdictions, a Ship is expressly required to be self-propelled. Other categories of floating asset "suitable for navigation" are considered a Marine Unit. The governing authority that shall issue implementing regulations in this subject area is the Ministry of Transport, Communications and Information Technology and the delegated department is the Directorate General of Maritime Affairs in the Ministry. The registration of ships and marine units is performed by a department within the Maritime Authority, described as the Registration Office. The international Conventions approved by the Sultanate of Oman are not expressly listed in the Law, but are said to be complementary to it. This allows flexibility and future-proofing. Notably, in the event of any conflict or inconsistency between international Conventions and the Law, the terms of the Conventions shall prevail.
Title 2 of the Law is concerned with the Ship itself. The Law confers Omani nationality to ships duly registered at the Registration Office and creates the rules for certification, supervision and inspection of such ships by the Maritime Authority. In relation to property in the Ship, joint ownership is expressly permitted and management decisions for such jointly-owned assets shall be majority decision. The building of new Omani ships is subject to the prior approval of the Maritime Authority and the Law creates a two-year statutory liability upon the ship-builder for any latent defects – in contrast to the typical one-year warranty provisions seen in many international shipbuilding contracts. In relation to ship registration, the Law establishes formalities and procedures such as for name approval, temporary registration for up to 90 days, registration of liens and lawsuits, and deletion. Notably, any charter of the ship exceeding one year shall be notifiable to the Registration Office and entered in the Register. The concept and practice of bareboat charter registration of an Omani ship is not envisaged.
Title 3 of the Law is entitled 'Rights in Rem against the Ship' and relates to property, debts and claims. The Law creates a category of "Privileged Debts", commonly known as maritime liens, for the preferred claims of Master and crew wages, salvage, general average and collision. Notably, the category of Privileged Debts is extended to include claims for loss and damage sustained by passengers and their luggage – but subject to a 180 day limitation period. The other listed Privileged Debts are subject to a one-year limitation period. Title 2 also contains detailed provisions for the creation, ranking, enforcement and deletion of ship mortgages. A ship may not be sold voluntarily by her owner without the consent of the mortgagee. Further, Title 2 describes the categories of maritime claim for which a ship may be arrested by creditors (referred to as "Provisional Seizure") and the sale of a ship by the competent Court following judgement (referred to as "Executive Seizure").
Title 4 of the Law relates to Marine Navigation, seafarers and operators. The principle of a shipowner's right to limitation of their liability, in accordance with the tonnage of the vessel concerned, is upheld. The second Chapter of this Title describes in detail the rights and duties of the Master of an Omani ship – including their command of the vessel, the contracts and liabilities for the vessel, plus record-keeping and reporting obligations. In relation to the seafarers on board an Omani ship, we find detailed provisions in relation to contracts of employment, wages and subsistence, discharge, repatriation and death in service. For this purpose, the responsible party is described as the Operator of the ship for the employment and voyages in question – as opposed to the registered owner.
Title 5 of the Law is entirely new, as compared to the 1981 Code, and relates to the Ship's Agent. Three categories of maritime agent are identified – the Ship's Agent; the Cargo Agent; and the Shipping Agent. Unless otherwise agreed, contracts between the agents shall be governed by the law of the Port state where the agreement in question was concluded or works performed. The first type, the Ship's Agent, is the local agent of any foreign registered owner or Operator of a vessel while in the territorial seas of Oman. The second type, the Cargo Agent, is the receiver of goods on arrival inwards to the Sultanate of Oman and is the representative of the shipper or cargo-owner rather than the vessel owner or Operator. The third type, the Shipping Agent, is the delegate of the ship owner or Operator responsible for loading and unloading operations at Omani ports.
Title 6 of the Law is extensive and diverse, entitled Use of the Ship. It describes forms of charterparty, contracts of carriage of cargo and passengers, tourist cruises, towage and pilotage. The conventional forms of time charter, voyage charter and bareboat charter are each addressed in Subchapters of this Title and which each form a useful high-level codification of default statutory rights of the owner and charterer in each case and broadly following conventional international practice. Chapter 2 of this Title relates to Carriage of Goods and Persons by Sea and establishes a detailed statutory regime of the rights and obligations of the Carrier of cargo under a Bill of Lading. Again, the provisions broadly follow conventional international practice – such as in relation to carriage on deck, dangerous goods, lien for freight and time-bar rules. The prescribed package limitation of the Carrier's liability is expressed in Omani Rials rather than Special Drawing Rights. In the same way, we see established a detailed statutory regime for the rights and liabilities of a carrier of passengers by sea, and for the rights of ticketed passengers on board. Specific treatment is given to cruise vessels and the liability of a Tourist Cruise Organiser.
Title 7 of the Law is concerned with Marine Accidents and reflects Book 6 of the 1981 Code. A novel term 'Maritime Collision' refers to contact between Ships and/or Marine Units, part of a Chapter that refers to "international conventions… ratified in connection with the regulation of maritime traffic", without express mention of the 1972 COLREG Convention (which Oman has ratified). This Title also contains separate Chapters on the subjects of Salvage, accident investigations, General Average and wreck removal.
Title 8 of the Law relates to Marine Insurance and is broadly based on Book 7 of the 1981 Code. Like the structure of Title 6, it is lengthy and detailed – divided into approachable Subchapters on topics such as the policy conditions, the obligation of the insurer and insured, claims procedure, cargo and liability cover, notification requirements and limitation of actions.
Title 9 of the Law contains sanctions and penalties applicable in the event of non-compliance with its provisions. Separate levels of financial penalty, with increasing severity from 500 to 10,000 Omani Rials, are provided for the violation of different categories of Articles of the Law.