| MUSCAT, July 4
MUSCAT, July 4 When the "Arab Spring" protests
started to threaten - and eventually topple - the leaders of
Tunisia and Egypt, the sultan of Oman took note and defused his
own potential bombshell with promises of jobs and reforms.
It seems to have mostly worked: nearly a year after
scattered strikes and protests against unemployment and
corruption, Oman had yet to experience anything like the
anti-government protests in Gulf neighbour Bahrain, or those
that paved the way for military intervention in Libya.
But a new wave of strikes - this time in the oil sector,
which provides 70 percent of Oman's revenue - suggests
discontent continues to simmer, and is even fuelling muted
criticism of the sultan, now the longest-serving ruler in the
"The reforms that were taken, the handouts and promises,
were not enough and the expectations are much higher," said an
Omani academic who spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing
possible government reprisals.
A country of just 2.8 million people perched on the shipping
route through which a fifth of the world's oil trade moves, Oman
tolerates no political parties or other forms of political
representation and invests virtually absolute power in the
sultan over the government and armed forces.
Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said, who has wielded power in
Oman since he deposed his father in 1970, is held by many to be
above the country's tribal and regional divisions.
Criticism of the ruler is taboo, so the government has born
the brunt of activists' attacks on Internet forums in recent
But in recent public demonstrations, protesters chanted
slogans that made indirect references to the sultan and put them
on placards, according to witnesses and people involved.
Activists said one sign referred to horses being "more
valuable" than people, for example -- a reference to the sultan
sending more than 100 purebred Arabian horses, part of the Royal
Cavalry, on chartered planes to Britain to participate in Queen
Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee celebrations.
Another slogan criticised the sultan for spending time out
of the country at a time of crisis.
Many ordinary Omanis are concerned about the turn of events,
some political commentators said.
"The strikes themselves were divisive," said an Omani who
has worked in the oil industry and is familiar with the
political sensitivities around the sector.
"Then to see this (insulting the sultan) in the streets, in
the capital, was shocking. And a lot of people didn't like that.
The impulse to politicise the strike this way scared people,
whatever they thought about it initially."
The sultan's reforms included sacking more than a third of
the cabinet, creating thousands of public sector jobs and paying
a dividend to the unemployed, which the IMF estimates amounts to
a quarter of Omanis.
Wealthier partners in the six-member Gulf Cooperation
Council (GCC) also promised - but not yet delivered - a $20
billion development fund to be split with Bahrain, where Saudi
troops intervened to crush anti-government demonstrations last
An official in the Oman Employment Committee, part of the
Ministry of Manpower, said the government created 50,000 jobs
between May last year and April this year and was allocating $1
billion a year to create 40,000 additional jobs in the
But still sporadic protests have taken place since last
year's unrest, in which at least two people were killed as
security forces sought to end sit-ins across the country.
In the latest incident on Saturday, up to 200 young Omanis,
many of them recent graduates, demonstrated in Sohar with
placards demanding jobs, better living conditions and an end to
The ministry official called the protests "isolated cases".
"The present protesters are job quitters who want to work
only on unrealistic salaries, are lazy or just troublemakers,"
the official told Reuters, and asked not to be named.
"We are not worried by protests because they are isolated
cases of job quitters who need to know to accept jobs at
The Ministry of Information referred questions to the
Ministry of Manpower.
OIL SECTOR STRIKES
The strikes in the critical oil industry occurred in May,
when hundreds contracted to firms working with the main state
oil company downed tools to demand wage hikes. The company,
Petrol Development Oman, said the dispute was largely finished
by June 2 and most of the strikers returned to work.
Three activists, including at least one lawyer, visited the
installation to monitor developments and were arrested, though
two have since been released.
The arrests sparked a wave of criticism on social media, to
which the government responded with further arrests of at least
six bloggers at their homes between June 1 and 10.
When about 30 people gathered outside police headquarters in
the capital's Qurum distract on June 11 to protest against the
crackdown, another 22 were arrested. Eleven of those were freed
on bail last week pending a court ruling due later this month on
charges of illegal assembly and obstructing traffic.
The office of Oman's public prosecutor, Hussein bin Ali
al-Hilali, said in a statement carried by the state news agency
on June 13 that the government was cracking down on increased
use of "defamatory statements... on social media" that contained
insulting language and threatened security by inciting strikes.
Hilali declined to comment about the specific charges the
bloggers and others might face.
An Omani writer who has lobbied for their release, Hamoud
Shkeili, said he believed the charges would be trumped up.
"It is a security services affair, and they can come up with
whatever charge they want, including illegal assembly, though
that isn't what happened," he said.
The harsh response to the unrest suggests that those who
favour cracking down on dissent are holding sway along with
Oman's security apparatus, which sees the situation as a pure
security threat, the academic said.
"The hardliners have started to gain some ground, and are
opting for security measures rather than talk and appeasement
... It's a false belief that this is simply a matter of people
trying to unsettle the country," he said.
The academic said he believed the new criticism of the
sultan indicates the degree of estrangement between the state he
founded and Omanis for whom unemployment matters as much as the
country's relatively good roads and public services.
"The new generation does not remember what happened in the
1970s and how he transformed the country," the academic said.
"He is still loved by a large majority. But it is foolish to
believe this love is infinite, and things have reached a level
where people make noises about him."