x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Family mourns Oman's 'accidental martyr', Abdullah al Ghamlasi

A '17-year-old student protester' shot dead in Sohar seemed the epitome of disaffected Arab youth: except he wasn't 17, or a student, or even a protester, but Abdullah al Ghamlas, 36, a successful property developer

SAHAM, Oman // The violence that erupted between police and protesters at the Kurra Ardiyah roundabout in Sohar on February 27 lasted barely an hour. But it was an hour that soon led to Oman being uttered in the same breath as Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, even Libya.

Eight people had been wounded and one protester killed. To many viewing from afar, there was one obvious conclusion. This, they assumed, was a grim addition to the tally of Middle East youth to have died protesting on the streets of their homelands.

Online, the nameless victim was described as a 17-year-old engineering student. The profile neatly echoed what has become a cliche: the dissatisfied, angry Arab youth whose political passion has been nursed by social networking, inspired and finally galvanised by the ferment spreading through neighbouring countries.

But it isn't true. And the truth matters very much to the family who mourn his loss. The man who died that day was Abdullah al Ghamlasi. He was 36 years old and a successful property developer who had just returned to Oman after a lengthy business trip to China.

He had a meeting that day in Sohar. It finished early and he decided to go to Kurra Ardiyah roundabout on a whim. He wanted to see what was going on before making the 30-minute drive back to his family home in the village of Saham.

It never occurred to him that he would be placing himself in mortal danger because he lived his life secure in the belief that things like that - things that bad - don't happen in Oman.

The night before, he had called his older sister, Mariam, to tell her that some roads had been closed by protesters. He wasn't alarmed. He simply wanted to make sure her husband didn't get stuck in traffic on his Sunday morning commute.

According to Mariam, "Abdullah was laughing and in a good mood. He gave me directions then he said he would call my husband later as I would get them all wrong. He was teasing me. He did call my husband later that night but I didn't speak to him. I never spoke to him again."

Mariam is speaking from the family room of the Al Ghamlasi home in Saham. All 11 of Abdullah's sisters have gathered here with their mother, a tiny woman wrung out with grief.

Mrs al Ghamlasi is surrounded by her family - the daughters and one surviving son, Mohammed - but Abdullah, Mariam explains, was the first son: "She and my father loved him too much."

They would, the sisters agree, have allowed Abdullah to live a pampered, cosseted life but he was determined to work. He started working at 16 and, soon after, moved to Dubai where he served in the UAE army before returning to Oman and starting his building and property business.

Younger sister Ameera - a student at university in Muscat - says: "He worked hard and he got more money and more position. He travelled a lot - to Thailand, China, Croatia, Britain. He sent us presents and pictures."

Divorced after a brief marriage, Abdullah was keen to marry again. He doted on his nieces and nephews and was eager to start a family of his own in the town that remained home however far he travelled.

His sisters say that in the days after his death many people have visited them, offering condolences. Ameera says, "People tell us he gave them AC or a washing machine, he gave them money. He never told us such things. He helped people quietly.

"We spoke about the protests and he supported what they wanted because he wanted everybody to have a good life. But he was so proud that it was peaceful too because that is what he thought Oman should be.

"None of us have ever heard of anybody being shot like this. Who could believe it?"

"Every day," Mariam says, "is like a nightmare and we cannot wake. We see him everywhere. We feel him everywhere. We miss him so much.

"He did nothing wrong. Abdullah's death is a day that everything changed for us. It is a day that everything changed for Oman."

The removal this week of Lieutenant General Malik bin Suleiman al Malmaary, Inspector General of Police and Customs, has been generally acknowledged as a response to the events at Kurra Ardiyah.

But today Abdullah's family remain unsatisfied and determined that the police officer who fired the bullets that killed him be held accountable.

Because while reports have linked Abdullah's death to those of so many others across the Middle East, for his family this is not a public tragedy. It is a personal one. For them, it is not part of some bigger picture, but an awful aberration.

It is an end that bears little relation to their loved one's life and one for which, they say, the perpetrator must swiftly be brought to book.

lcollins@thenational.ae