x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Thousands of Omanis renew calls against corruption

Oman's southern city of Salalah was the site of unprecedented protests yesterday as some 3,000 demonstrators took to the streets after Friday prayers.

SALALAH, OMAN // More than 3,000 protesters yesterday took to the streets after Friday prayers in Oman's southern city of Salalah to renew calls to end corruption and prosecute officials involved in graft.

"There has never been this big a gathering before in Salalah. The size of the crowd matches what we saw in Sohar on April 1," Khalifa Shamrashdi, a protester, said.

Before protesters marched took to the streets, they gathered under tents in a square opposite the office of the governor of Dhofar to listen to a Friday sermon made by local cleric Sheikh Amer al Hardan.

"We will not be silenced and we are firmly behind the Sultan, but we urge him to look into our two-month old demand to sack people who have been embezzling government funds for years. Corruption is still being practised in the government and we want it stopped now and those responsible must face justice," Sheikh al Hardan said.

The imam also urged Sultan Qaboos bin Said to order an investigation to the ministers he sacked last month. Sultan Qaboos is widely seen as a saviour by his people after ending years of oppression by deposing his father in a bloodless coup in 1970,

"We are not afraid to speak out against those officials who used their power, now or in the past, to enrich themselves. They must face consequences and we will not be intimidated, now or in the future," the cleric said.

Protesters said that it was the first time since the demonstrations started in Oman more than eight weeks ago that a cleric had used a Friday prayer congregation to attack the government.

"It shows that their patience is running thin on the question of corruption," said Musallam al Bamkhalef, another protester.

A government official, who declined to be identified, said security forces were not deployed to the protest site because the demonstrations were peaceful. "As long as it continues to be peaceful, unlike Sohar, the government will not stop them. That is the order from the Sultan himself."

On February 27, security forces opened fire at stone-throwing protesters and killed one in the industrial city of Sohar, hours after demonstrators had burnt a police station and three government offices.

Days later, angry demonstrators demanding political reforms, jobs and higher pay, torched a shopping mall in Sohar and later looted it. The turmoil reached its climax in Sohar on April 1 with security forces killing another protester and arresting more than 200 others. The Omani military then moved in with armoured vehicles and removed demonstrators in areas they had occupied for weeks.

"They might have stopped protests in Sohar but we are continuing here until corruption ends for good and those responsible pay for their crimes," Said al Mashani, a protester, said.

Last week, Sultan Qaboos pardoned 234 protesters arrested on April 1. He also ordered a fund of one billion rials (Dh9.5bn) to be spent addressing the issues of protesters, including job creation, pay hikes, loan repayments and construction of houses for the poor.