- Published on Tuesday, 15 March 2011 20:00
- Category: Letters From Oman
MUSCAT- Protests broke out in Oman a few weeks ago, though one would never know it by looking at local newspapers. Like most of its Gulf neighbors, the Omani press is tightly monitored by the government, reporting mostly on the King’s greetings to foreign nations and his royal decrees. Such scant local coverage, in addition to a general ignorance about the country, has resulted in limited information floating around major news networks. Through a combination of bits and bites from Internet media, official articles, and several well placed sources inside the Omani government, I hope to explain exactly what is going on in Oman. And it’s probably not what anyone expects.
Though it has been crowned the latest participant in Arab world protests, Omani popular resistance, like many other aspects of the country, takes on its own distinct flavor. In comparison to Egypt and even its Gulf neighbors, demonstrations have been relatively small, ranging in size from about 40 to 4,000 people, and nowhere near as explosive, with only eight recorded deaths in two weeks of protests. Most importantly, the protesters’ demands are also nowhere near as radical, remaining quite distant from neighboring calls for removal of heads of state.
That is not to discount their power, for in a country where it is actually illegal to discuss politics, any protest is a significant feat. But Omani protests are best explained in the context of its own political history, with only a dash of reference to current events.
The current monarch, Sultan Qaboos, took the reins from his father in 1970, promising to “bring a new dawn to Muscat.” And since his defeat of the Dhofari rebels in 1975 (a rebellion which preexisted his rule), Oman has remained an extremely stable country, witnessing only a smattering of public displays of dissatisfaction, most of which unsurprisingly went unreported. While the government’s swift punishment of said protesters certainly dissuaded copycats, this peace is more aptly attributed to Sultan Qaboos’s successful development of the country, which includes building an enormous state capable of pacifying any potential dissidents.
Much like King Abdulluh II in Jordan (the two are actually good friends), Sultan Qaboos is seen as the father of modern Oman, a claim that is actually fairly accurate. To his credit, he managed to transform the three schools and five roads that existed under his father’s rule into a fully functioning system of modern highways, schools, hospitals, shopping centers, and universities. In fact, in the most recent UNDP Human development report, Oman was named the country that had made the most progress in education and public health over the last 40 years. Even highly educated Omanis seem to agree that it was largely the Sultan’s vision which guided the country‘s progress. It is thus not an overstatement to say that most Omanis legitimately love their ruler. My host mother for example explained to me three times how the Sultan deeply cared for his people, and how he had provided her with a multitude of services, like free hospitals, food, education, and money for her children. She also referred to him with extreme sincerity as her father.
Despite this genuine respect, conditions in the Sultanate are far from perfect. Oman suffers in varying degrees from the same youth unemployment, illiberal political atmosphere, and wasta clogged bureaucracies found elsewhere in the Arab world. It is at this point that current events come into play, for young Omanis appear to be largely inspired by the success of their brethren, even (shockingly) burning cars, the local police station, and the enormous Lulu supermarket. Their demands focus largely on more jobs and higher minimum salaries for Omanis, in addition to more power for the Majlis al Shura (Oman’s consultative council) and the removal of several corrupt ministers.
It is these protests which prompted the Sultan to call for 50,000 new jobs and an increased minimum wage of 150 OR ($390) per month. But this is only half the story. There is another distinct movement, connected with the protests in Muscat, which consists primarily of representatives from the Majlis al Shura and the Omani intelligentsia. Their protests were recognized by the government, and the head of the Diwan (Royal Court affairs) actually met them outside the Majlis and collected their letter to His Majesty. According to my source (who had himself signed the letter), the document contained a list of demands that had been brought up six months prior, but which had remained largely unacknowledged. Chief among the demands were additional binding legislative power for the Majlis, and more oversight for all government activities. It is these protests that I have been assured prompted the initial reshuffle of government ministers, which rearranged the Minister for National Economy, Civil Service, Education, Transportation, Tourism, and Environment. Despite their initial divergence in focus and tactics, neither group is interested in overthrowing the Sultan; all of their criticisms target his government only. In fact, there was a march held in Muscat in support of the Sultan, which was deemed as a way to support the protesters!
Each movement has therefore gained some concessions from the government, and as a result it appears that their interests are beginning to overlap. Both are calling for additional reformation of the cabinet and the complete removal of several notoriously corrupt ministers. Yet the possibility of their future cooperation remains tenuous, for the two movements occupy very different stratums in society and are employing often polarizing tactics. For example, my 24 year old Arabic professor discounted the protesters’ demands as youth ignorantly venting their feelings, while other college students at Rustaq College explained that uneducated youth did not deserve to have employment. Additionally, I have been told by a member of the Muscat “party” that the organizers desire to keep their movement separate, as they did not want to pollute their demands for structural change with more easily satisfied questions of economic opportunities.
The spirit of reformation has clearly not left Oman yet, and ongoing protests and sit-ins have convinced the government to enact two more reorganizations of Ministers, one as recent as a few days ago. As per the latest flurry of royal decrees, twelve ministers have been removed from their posts, some of whom have been shifted to other ministries, while others, including the largely detested Minister of National Economy Ahmed Bin Abdulnabi Macki and the former Minister of Finance and Commerce Maqbool Bin Ali Bin Sultan (he had been shifted to another ministry in the first reorganization) were removed altogether. In accordance with the protestors’ demands, six of the ministers were replaced by representatives from the popularly elected Majlis al Shura, in order to make the government more responsive to the needs of Omanis. Additionally, the Sultan completely abolished the Ministry of National Economy, and allocated its duties to the Ministry of Finance and another smaller committee.
It is unclear how long the protests here will continue, and what changes they will pressure the government to enact. However, if the number of anonymous text messages supporting the protests is any indicator, Omanis will not rest until meaningful reforms have been enacted.Martijn Munneke