x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Oman's protesters want to change their lives, not their leader

Economic hardships, the practice of wasta and anger about corruption are making demonstrators a fixture in the normally quiet streets of Oman. But the big difference between Oman and Egypt or Tunisia is that the anger is not aimed directly at the country's ruler, Sultan Qaboos.

Omani protesters shouted slogans during a demonstration in the northern industrial town of Sohar in February. Until now, few could have dreamt that the people of Oman, so peaceable by reputation, would rise up to affect such change.
Omani protesters shouted slogans during a demonstration in the northern industrial town of Sohar in February. Until now, few could have dreamt that the people of Oman, so peaceable by reputation, would rise up to affect such change.

SOHAR, Oman // Lunchtime at Kurra Ardiyah is a curious affair: an amiable picnic in the middle of an urgent political rally.

Men lounge on rugs laid on the now famous roundabout around which no traffic flows. From a makeshift stage erected beneath the central globe monument that gives the Sohar landmark its name, techno music plays over speakers that, moments earlier, blared political demands. Nearby restaurants provide the food, catering for up to 300 by day, 50 by night, against a backdrop of burnt-out, boarded-up buildings, flanked by tanks on whose gun turrets soldiers doze.

It is close to three weeks since protests began in Oman. Since then, government and university employees have rallied in Muscat. Oil workers in Haima have staged sit-ins. In Ebri, government offices have been burnt. More than a dozen government ministers and high-profile officials have lost their jobs.

Barely a week passes without a decree from the country's ruler, Sultan Qaboos, ordering review and reform and promising to place the interests of the people above all others. And still the protests continue.

Until now few could have thought that the people of Oman, so peaceable by reputation, would have staged such protests.

But, though their effect is being felt most keenly in Muscat's halls of power, the events that led there began 200km north, in the small industrial port town of Sohar.

However, it is important to understand that people in Sohar don't want to change their leader. They want to change their lives.

On a slip road next to one of the blocked-off entrances to Kurra Ardiyah stands a small thicket of placards: "We want jobs for everyone," "More salaries", "No corrupt government." Studded between them are proclamations: "We love you, Qaboosi."

Many of the protesters in Sohar are unemployed. Men such as 25-year-old Musabah Salem, who claims to have been out of work for more years than he can remember. "We are inspired by Egypt to do something. Three hundred thousand Omanis are unemployed," he says.

Musab Salam Rashid, a local man who lived in Dubai for a decade before returning home with his family forwards a similar argument: "My daughter is a university graduate, but she cannot find work. Her college cost me 20,000 rials but there is nothing for her." One rial is almost Dh10.

His comments prompt approving nods from the men who press close, interjecting with calls for an end to the corrupt practice of giving jobs according to wasta, and for a minimum salary of 500 rials in place of the current 200 rials. Many among the young men are highly qualified, university graduates.

Some, like Majid al Khambashi, a PhD graduate in electronic engineering, have taken positions below their capabilities. Mr al Khambashi is a clerk in the ministry of education. But others simply will not accept a job that does not match their skills. Others still, those without qualifications, complain that expatriate workers fill jobs that could and should be theirs.

Their anger is fuelled by their fervent belief that corrupt ministers have skimmed the cream from development contracts and tilted what job market there is in favour of family members. The removal of such ministers is, they say, "half a step". They want them put on trial.

Although it is possible this element of their grievances will addressed, the underlying sense of job entitlement will prove difficult for any administration to negotiate. Because at the heart of these men's calls lies the belief that the government should provide them with well-paid work. The sultan of Oman has already vowed to create 50,000 jobs and promised unemployment benefits of 150 rials a month.

For the men in Sohar, however, such actions fall short of expectations nurtured during boom years that saw heavy investment in education and industry based, predominantly, on finite natural resources.

Mark Almond, the visiting emeritus professor in international relations at Bilkent University in Turkey, says calls for change "often come in a downturn after people's standards of living have been rising. You have people who haven't been hungry before and aren't hungry now, worrying that they might be tomorrow. Food prices are going up, salaries are not.

"If you think that your parents had it better than you, or that jobs are handed out unfairly, if you have highly educated people facing primary social and economic difficulties, then you have a problem."

As an industrial port, he said, Sohar is a hub for education and investment but is now facing an economic downturn that although not particular to Sohar, is felt particularly intensely there.

The demands being made in Sohar differ greatly from those being made in Muscat. There, for example, intellectuals have called for constitutional change, while women's groups call for allowances to be paid to widows and divorcees, increased maternity benefits and greater workplace parity.

Unlike other regional protests, this is not so much a united movement as a flurry of disparate groups with different demands seizing a chance to voice them.

Mr Almond adds: "What may differentiate Oman from Egypt, say, is the ground base of loyalty that royalty can command in the way that self-made presidents cannot."

That loyalty is indeed a powerful stabilising factor. For, where the hand of Hosni Mubarak was seen in police brutality in Egypt, Sohar's demonstrators make no such connection between the sultan and the violence that flared on February 27.

Those who were present are angry, but it is to the sultan that they turn as a first and last recourse for justice.

According to Mr al Khambashi: "The police came in the early morning, 2 or 3 o'clock, and arrested 28. That made people angry. They attacked the police station and more people came. There were many hundreds."

The evidence of what happened next is all around. Rubble and knots of concrete where road signs were uprooted; the burnt-out police station and blackened shell of the ministry of manpower; the boarded-up ghost of the Lulu Supermarket and memorials to Abdullah al Ghamlasi - hit twice when police fired rubber bullets.

"Ambulances were not allowed to the wounded. This was a very bad day. But inshallah we will change everything now," claims Musabah Salem.

The police stood down and the army moved in, a silent, watchful, presence out of keeping with the normality gradually returning to this town. Schools, briefly closed, are now open. Banks, shops and restaurants have, for the most part, resumed normal hours though all must work around the fractured road system imposed by the protesters' presence at both Kurra Ardiyah and the Industrial Roundabout at the mouth of the port.

There, a few dozen men keep watch from tents erected in its centre. Trucks seized by protesters block the roads. Others carrying shipments of building materials languish, immobile on the verge, flagged down by protesters who cover their faces with scarves. The shell of a burnt lorry flakes in the sun, a sobering remnant of earlier passions. Along the bleak industrial front a heavy army presence ensures that the work of the oil refinery, aluminium and natural gas plants continues with little interruption.

There is the same uneasy balance of protester and army road blocks on the way into Sohar. The army is present but inactive. The protesters make great show of stopping and inspecting cars and their occupants before allowing them passage.

They say what they are doing is symbolic, a show of control. Conducted as it is in the shadow of heavy arms, however, it is a disturbing show.

After all, this state of suspended animation cannot last indefinitely. However peaceful the situation in Sohar today it is impossible to know whether this is the calm after the storm or the eery quiet that precedes one.



* With additional reporting by Saleh Al Shaibany