FALLING SHORT? Oman protests suggest jobs and reform pledges are not enough
An official in the Oman Employment Committee, part of the Ministry of Manpower, said the government created 50,000 jobs but still sporadic protests have taken place since last year's unrest.
July 5, 2012 5:28 by Reuters
When the “Arab Spring” protests started to threaten – and eventually topple – the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt, the sultan of Oman took note and defused his own potential bombshell with promises of jobs and reforms.
It seems to have mostly worked: nearly a year after scattered strikes and protests against unemployment and corruption, Oman had yet to experience anything like the anti-government protests in Gulf neighbour Bahrain, or those that paved the way for military intervention in Libya.
But a new wave of strikes – this time in the oil sector, which provides 70 percent of Oman’s revenue – suggests discontent continues to simmer, and is even fuelling muted criticism of the sultan, now the longest-serving ruler in the Arab world.
“The reforms that were taken, the handouts and promises, were not enough and the expectations are much higher,” said an Omani academic who spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing possible government reprisals.
A country of just 2.8 million people perched on the shipping route through which a fifth of the world’s oil trade moves, Oman tolerates no political parties or other forms of political representation and invests virtually absolute power in the sultan over the government and armed forces.
Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said, who has wielded power in Oman since he deposed his father in 1970, is held by many to be above the country’s tribal and regional divisions.
Criticism of the ruler is taboo, so the government has born the brunt of activists’ attacks on Internet forums in recent years.
But in recent public demonstrations, protesters chanted slogans that made indirect references to the sultan and put them on placards, according to witnesses and people involved.
Activists said one sign referred to horses being “more valuable” than people, for example — a reference to the sultan sending more than 100 purebred Arabian horses, part of the Royal Cavalry, on chartered planes to Britain to participate in Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations.
Another slogan criticised the sultan for spending time out of the country at a time of crisis.
Many ordinary Omanis are concerned about the turn of events, some political commentators said.
“The strikes themselves were divisive,” said an Omani who has worked in the oil industry and is familiar with the political sensitivities around the sector.
“Then to see this (insulting the sultan) in the streets, in the capital, was shocking. And a lot of people didn’t like that. The impulse to politicise the strike this way scared people, whatever they thought about it initially.”
The sultan’s reforms included sacking more than a third of the cabinet, creating thousands of public sector jobs and paying a dividend to the unemployed, which the IMF estimates amounts to a quarter of Omanis.
Wealthier partners in the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) also promised – but not yet delivered – a $20 billion development fund to be split with Bahrain, where Saudi troops intervened to crush anti-government demonstrations last year.
An official in the Oman Employment Committee, part of the Ministry of Manpower, said the government created 50,000 jobs between May last year and April this year and was allocating $1 billion a year to create 40,000 additional jobs in the government sector.
But still sporadic protests have taken place since last year’s unrest, in which at least two people were killed as security forces sought to end sit-ins across the country.
In the latest incident on Saturday, up to 200 young Omanis, many of them recent graduates, demonstrated in Sohar with placards demanding jobs, better living conditions and an end to corruption.