x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Oman's new opera house sparks debate

The 1,100-seat concert hall opens with the Spanish tenor Placido Domingo conducting Puccini¿s Turandotand but some feel the money should have been used to create jobs.

The new opera house built in Qurm, Muscat.
The new opera house built in Qurm, Muscat.

MUSCAT // Sultan Qaboos bin Said, the ruler of Oman, inaugurated the country's opulent opera house yesterday - but many Omanis said the money would have been better spent on creating jobs.

The 1,100-seat concert hall opened with the Spanish tenor Placido Domingo conducting Puccini's Turandotand a season featuring performances by the American soprano Renee Fleming, the tenor Andrea Bocelli and the cellist Yo-Yo Ma performing with London's Philharmonic Orchestra.

But despite the launch, yesterday was just like any other day in the past six months for Omanis such as Shaddad Al Balusi, who spent it searching for a job.

"I am not sure if the Opera House will justify the costs. Oman needs to generate thousands of jobs every year from all the graduates who are looking for employment," said Mr Al Balushi, who lives in Muscat and dropped out of his studies a year before completing his course.

Protests held in the country from January to May, which left two dead, were led mostly by youths who demanded jobs, economic reforms and an end to graft.

No official unemployment figures are kept but a ministry of manpower employee, who did not want to be identified, said that more than 30,000 people were looking for jobs before the protests begun. The GCC promised in May to give Oman, one of the group's less wealthy countries, US$10 billion (Dh36.7bn) to help finance reforms the government promised protesters in April.

These included the creation of 50,000 jobs, unemployment benefits and pay rises in the government sector.

But the opening of the lavish new concert centre has renewed anger in some of those who took part in the protests.

"It does not sit well when we are receiving financial aid, we are spending money on entertainment," said Hamed Nabhani, 19, who has been looking for a job since June. "That cash is needed somewhere else."

The government has not revealed the cost of building the opera house or the costs to maintain the project, including bringing in foreign musicians for concerts scheduled to run from mid-October to January.

Struggling businessmen said the venue was opened too soon after the protests.

"The opening of the Opera House could have been delayed so that the government could have focused helping business people like us to meet our bank loans," said Faisal Al Ashour, 23. He runs an internet kiosk in Muscat and took part in the demonstrations.

Another part of the promised reforms was to help small business owners with low-interest government loans. Six months later the government has yet to say how that process will work.

There has been no word on how the GCC aid would be spent or whether part of the money has already been used.

A month before the announcement of GCC aid, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, in power since 1970, ordered the government to spend 1bn rials (Dh9.5bn) in March to meet the protesters' demands.

A government official said that the money came from the state reserves and had been used on the creation of public sector jobs and pay raises to civil servants.

"I can assure you that the one billion rial package has already been mobilised to create thousands of jobs and some went to the increment of public workers' pay," the official added.

He refused to comment on the government's plans for the GCC aid.

The official Oman news agency said the government had already created up to 70,000 jobs but former protesters argued that the figure was hard to believe.

"Have that many jobs been created at such a short time just after the protests? We would like both the civil service and manpower ministries to prove it to us," said Hamood Al Jadidi, 36, a former protester who works for a bank in Muscat.



* With additional reporting by Associated Press