The Middle East Channel

Oman, kind of not quiet?

Oman, kind of not quiet?

Oman held parliamentary elections on October 15 — two weeks before the Tunisian elections that captured the world’s attention. But nobody paid them much mind. And why should they? There is not much more to be said beyond the high "participation" rate (76 percent of those who bothered to register), the solitude that the one elected woman may feel among her 83 male colleagues, or the election of three protesters. Tribal alliances still drove results in a country where political parties are not allowed and where, for most seats, 1,500 votes is enough to get elected.

But this might be deceiving. This has been Oman’s least quiet year in a generation. The Economist scored Oman sixth highest within its (unsophisticated) Arab instability index in early February, a forecast met with wide incredulity at the time. A few weeks later, the country was shaken with memorable scenes of unrest: protests — some violent, most peaceful, loyalty marches, regime concessions, a GCC "Marshall Plan," labor strikes and opportunistic demands, and regime crackdowns. The ground has significantly shifted beneath the feet of a regime that has overseen the rapid transformation of society over the last 40 years, underwritten by absolute power and facilitated by oil income.

Muscat witnessed its first significant demonstration only three days after Ben Ali fled Tunisia. By the second "Green March" — on that first Friday sans Mubarak – it was undeniable that a new wind was blowing. Vibrancy of Bahrain’s early Lulu scenes and the intensifying youth-led protests in Yemen only sharpened the palpable mood for change. Secure in its own rhetoric of Omani exceptionalism, the government chose not to confront crowds numbering in the low hundreds rallying mainly against corruption.

One week later, though, massive protests struck in the rapidly industrializing city of Sohar, setting in motion a month of unprecedented countrywide unrest, government concessions, labor opportunism, and even promises of GCC economic support. By mid March, however, specters of a bloody crackdown in Bahrain and Yemen fed fears of deterioration. On March 29, the army finally moved to clear the protests in Sohar, restoring safe passage for the industrial port area. Over the next month, order was gradually enforced through security and legal channels, culminating in the May 12 breakup of the last major protest site in Salalah. Whatever residual will for public manifestation there remained, summer heat soon dissolved.

Yet roots of the Omani protests extend deeper than a simple imitation of the prevailing Arab mood. Throughout the past decade, new and unregulated channels for disseminating information and expressing opinion proliferated. Internet forums dynamically altered the hitherto rigid political mood. With over 100,000 members and 200,000 daily visitors, thorny samizdat Al-Sablah endured episodes of closure and litigation until Oman’s own "Spring" forced a major concession — the royal court now operates an official account.  This and other examples of compelled accommodation illustrate how much the regime’s capacity for containment was challenged — most dramatically since the defeat of the 1970’s Marxist insurgency led by the Popular Front for Liberation of Oman and the Arabian Gulf (PFLOAG). Yet this year’s confrontation was less ideological, more pragmatic. It’s about a youthful, worldly, more connected population who basically want a voice — publicly accountable ministers, free and independent press, even separation of state powers. It’s also about an economy in which during 2009, nearly 75 percent of private sector jobs drew monthly wages of OMR 200 or less (USD $520), and in which non-nationals in the active workforce outnumbered nationals by more than two-to-one. Oil income may be near historic highs, but with the inequitable distribution of revenue, it’s far from enough to pamper the entire population. Even narrowing it to "jobs and economy" entails a political undercurrent: a limit of rentier social contract is fast approaching.

Cognizant of the situation’s unfolding gravity, the Omani authorities responded by bombarding the population with far-reaching decisions. One third of the Cabinet of Ministers was replaced. Some top officials, previously thought as immovable, were dismissed. There was an immediate creation of 50,000 jobs — in a country where the total active national workforce, public and private, was probably 300,000. Minimum wage was raised by a one third (OMR 150 to 200). It did look quite ad hoc, even if the careful sequence of changes — individually or in aggregate — indicates that Oman had intellectually digested the risks and opportunities presented by its own youth bulge phenomenon.

But the treatment did not just stop at analgesics. Public prosecution gained independence from the police force and there was an expanded remit for State Audit committee. Constitutional changes were announced, with the bicameral house eventually gaining legislative and regulatory powers. These are actually deep institutional changes which are remodeling the scope of possibilities. Power is becoming more inclusive, with the elected Shura Council being granted extra voice and, while in the appointed State Council, civil society being recognized as the emergent social force.

The thing that is less clear is whether the Omani system can manage this adaptation. The regime is quite set in its ways. Many of the key figures are septuagenarians (or were, until March, when the average age of ministers significantly decreased). Since the resignation of his uncle nearly 40 years ago, Sultan Qaboos has not warmed up to the idea of a prime minister. The Sultan retains nominal ministership of defense, foreign affairs, finance, plus command of various military and security apparatuses. (With March’s cabinet sackings, the lightening rods had vanished and it was expected that a PM was needed more than ever. Yet that still hasn’t happened.) Considering the widely acknowledged need for a more reactive, flexible form of governance, what type of power transfer can thus be expected? Moreover, as placements of individuals to public positions often proceed without their foreknowledge, this unpredictable all-powerful agency maintains a sense of public passivity. And of course: whenever a singular, i.e. extra-ordinary, power becomes the defining factor for an entire system, perennial uncertainty breeds.

Many Omanis worry as well about the regime’s efforts to re-impose control over the public sphere by drawing new "red lines." For example, the amended penal code article headed "on undermining the state’s position" outlines punishment for those who undermine "prestige of the state" or weaken confidence in its financial reputation. Or another article in the press and publications law that prohibits "disseminating all that would compromise state security, internal or external." Not to mention the ongoing appeal by Azzaman newspaper, slapped with prison sentences and one month closure.

Previous Omani reforms have typically responded to major external challenges. The Shura council was founded at the end of a year of intense world scrutiny bearing upon Saudi Arabia and the GCC consequent to Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Female inclusion could be seen as another proactive move, partially to stem the spread of Islamist currents of the 1990s. Post 9/11, a different set of acute outside pressures resulted in further overtures, proactive and reactive: non-opposition of benign Western reform agendas, symbolism of a 100-fold increase in base of possible voters in 2003 versus 1991, acquiescence to a regionally assertive United States on free trade. As these external pressures subsided, so did the reforms. The events of 2011 are a departure from the past as the first sustained, significant pressure from within. It remains unclear whether genuine pluralism can evolve within a domineering power structure, and more critically whether a democratic transition can be managed whilst preparing society for the post-oil terra incognita. At least if the exceptional number of Royal Decrees is any indicator, clearly some kind of shift is taking place.

Ra’id Zuhair Al-Jamali, @rzj,  lives in Muskat, Oman. Olivier Renard contributed to the editing and review of this article. The views expressed in this article are solely the opinions of the author.