- By Peter SalisburyPeter Salisbury is a freelance journalist and analyst based in Sanaa, Yemen, whose work has appeared in the Economist, Financial Times, and Foreign Policy, among others.
Oman’s Basic Law (Implemented November 6, 1996)
Article 18: Personal freedom is guaranteed according to the Law, and it is unlawful to arrest, search, detain, or imprison any person or have his place of residence or freedom of movement or residence restricted except in accordance with the provisions of the Law.
Article 29: The freedom of opinion and expression thereof through speech, writing or other forms of expression is guaranteed within the limits of the Law.
Article 32: The citizens have the right to assemble within the limits of the Law.
It started with a road trip.
On May 31, two Omani human rights activists, Ismail al-Muqbali and Habeeba al-Hina’i, and a prominent local lawyer, Yaqoub al-Kharousi, drive to Fahud, a major oil facility about 217 miles southwest of Muscat.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of oil workers had taken part in strikes across the country demanding better working conditions and pay over the previous few days, and they were keen to see for themselves how the strikers were being treated by the police.
But Fahud was an anticlimax; there was practically no one there other than the police. After talking to a few stragglers, the three decided to head back to Muscat, worried that the cops might pick them up. They didn’t straight away, but about 15 miles down the road, their car was pulled over.
Then, a silence. To all intents and purposes they disappeared.
It would be a week before al-Hina’i and al-Kharousi were let out on bail (the prosecutor’s office would later quietly drop the charge of inciting public disorder leveled against them), but al-Muqbali spent the next three months in prison, eventually receiving an 18 month jail sentence, thanks in no small part to the contents of his mobile phone. The consequences of the arrest, and the seizure of al-Muqbali’s iPhone, would ripple throughout the activist community in Oman over the coming weeks and months.
A lot of meetings in Muscat take place in the strip-lit, frigidly air conditioned environment of Western coffee shops: Costa, Starbucks, Caribou, Second Cup. A week of appointments leaves the constant burnt plastic aftertaste of coffee beans and over moist muffins.
This September Basma al-Kiyumi sat in just such a coffee shop. She looked to one side, but the conversation she was having did not suit the environment. There was little to look at for reassurance.
"I thought of so many ways to make this year go by," she said with customary stoicism. "I will be doing a lot of meditation. If they allow me books I will read and write; I’ll try to make it useful. [But] it is harsh. Nobody likes to be treated as a prisoner. Eating horrible food, not being allowed proper visits and it’s … it is horrible. One has to be strong. I can’t spend the time just thinking about it."
On October 17, Muscat’s court of appeals was due to review sentences handed down to al-Kiyumi and 10 other young Omani civil society activists of a year each in prison. If the cases are upheld, they will also have to pay fines of 200 Omani Riyals on top of the 1,000 riyals they paid to appeal their convictions — significant amounts of money in a country where the minimum wage is little more than 200 riyals a month. On the day of the appeal, the hearing was pushed back to November 14. Al-Kiyumi and the other defendants will have to wait another month to discover their fate. Their crime: taking part in an illegal gathering, a demonstration held to protest the detention without charge of a group of their colleagues for "lese majeste" — insulting the sultan.
Another 30 or so other activists civil society activists, bloggers, intellectuals, and casual social media users including al-Muqbali are also appealing sentences handed down this year, for insulting the sultan using social media. They, like the protesters, do not fancy their chances and are also preparing to spend the next year in jail.
Oman, which dodged the worst of the Arab Spring in 2011, is often seen as one of the Gulf’s more open and moderate societies. Its Basic Law, created in 1996, even guarantees freedom of speech and the right to assembly. So why is the government banning protests, spying on social media sites, and locking up some of the country’s most prominent civil society activists?
When al-Muqbali, al-Hina’i, and al-Kharousi were arrested, their electronic equipment — a laptop, a couple of iPads, and their mobile phones — was seized by internal security officials. They were particularly interested Muqbali’s iPhone. They searched through his social media apps — Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp, a peer-to-peer chat service that can be used for group discussions. What they found was enough to justify a quiet campaign of arrests.
Every few days, a group of students, activists, intellectuals, and lawyers would be picked up at home, in coffee shops, on their way to work or university. Initially, it was hard to know what they had in common. They held different political and religious views, and many were not well known to one another. But they were all members of social media groups to which Muqbali and other activists belonged.
Because they didn’t know exactly why their friends were being arrested, many activists became worried for their safety. "He was just leaving Second Cup, and people just attacked him, covered his face and dragged him away," says a friend of the writer and blogger Nabhan al-Hanshi, one of those arrested in June. His friends thought that he had been kidnapped until he reappeared a month later, accused of insulting the sultan.
As evidence of lese majeste, the defendants and their lawyers say that the prosecution provided printouts of messages from Facebook pages, Twitter posts, and WhatsApp conversations, some clearly taken from Muqbali’s phone. Messages that the prosecutors said caused insult to the sultan, undermined the Omani state, and somewhat ironically were "an abuse of technology."
The comments and messages ranged from the mild (implying that the government depended too much British government support) to the downright abusive ("F-bombs all over the place, directed at the sultan," says someone who followed the trial). But the sentences imposed were largely the same: a year in jail.
Al-Kiyumi knew most of those arrested in May and June, as did her colleagues Said al-Hashimi and Basimah al-Rajhi. Many of them were fellow human rights and civil society activists. The three frequented the same social media sites, but had apparently managed to walk the line between criticism and insult a little more carefully.
Increasingly concerned by the arrests, they and a group of fellow activists decided to hold a daily, hour-long protest at a parking lot opposite Oman’s state police headquarters in Muscat, starting on June 9. "Their families didn’t know where they were; where their daughters and their sons were," al-Rajhi says. "It was a surprise for us, it was dangerous for us because we dreamed of civil rights, so we went to say give them their rights, let them call their parents, call their lawyers."
"So they arrested us too," says al-Hashimi.
They were detained on June 11 for holding an illegal gathering (it has been against the law in Oman to hold a public meeting of more than 10 people without a permit since 2011). The protesters were also charged with obstructing traffic, despite their insistence that they remained meters away from the road throughout their sit-in.
Thinking the worst they would face would be a sentence of a few weeks, it was a shock when, on August 8, each member of the group was given an 18-month prison term, a year of which they would have to serve before being granted parole. According to the group and their lawyers, the judge hearing their case largely ignored evidence that they had not committed any crimes including using Google maps, photographs, and TV footage shot during the protest.
"I thought the worst would be a suspended sentence," says Kiyumi. "We waited and the verdict was announced five minutes before the end of the day. We couldn’t get bail, so we spent Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and part of Saturday in prison. It was horrible."
She also concedes that it was just a matter of time before the security services came for her and her friends.
"I thought they would arrest me," she says. "You could see it coming. They were arresting people I knew, my colleagues, and I thought that it would come. They hate you, so they are going to find something."
Perhaps no one better exemplifies the threat to the established order than al-Kiyumi, who was walking a tightrope since long before the events of 2011. A Britain-trained lawyer, she has attracted plenty of attention since returning to Oman in 2008, rising to prominence first as the defense lawyer for Ali al-Zuwaidi, a government employee who in 2009 leaked an internal memo discussing plans to muffle a popular political radio talk show.
"I couldn’t find a lawyer," says Zuwaidi, now head of safety at Oman’s civil aviation authority. "I went to people who knew me and they told me, Ali, keep your money, you will not win. Then Basmah called, and she said she wanted to be my lawyer. I initially said no, but she was persistent, I couldn’t find someone else, so in the end she represented me. She didn’t win, but no one would have."
Although the Ibadhi form of Islam, the (debatably) majority religion of Oman, is generally more liberal than the Salafi and Wahabi ideology practiced in neighboring Yemen and Saudi Arabia, the sultanate is still in many ways deeply conservative. Women are expected to cover their hair — although not their faces — in public, and to dress modestly. Al-Kiyumi quickly garnered attention during the al-Zuwaidi case for her combative style, uncovered hair, and refusal to defer to the older men prosecuting and overseeing the case.
In 2010, she returned to the public eye as one of a group of lawyers, academics, and intellectuals who signed a petition calling for a new constitution giving limited legislative powers to an elected government and national assembly and the codification of civil rights. It was delivered to the palace. "[W]e never got an answer," al-Kiyumi says.
"Basma is not covered, she dresses modern, she used to go to court like that, and our courts are run by hardline conservatives," says a government official with close ties to the country’s legal establishment. "Someone told me, ‘The minute I saw her I knew they would try to get her.’ She doesn’t care what people think about her, or their opinions of her, and she doesn’t take no for an answer. She is against everything they stand for."
No one on trial in Muscat this year believes what is happening is simply because of a few comments on social media sites. Many, including al-Kiyumi, were arrested in 2011 during a period of widespread protests. Al-Hashimi and al-Rajhi, prominent figures in the youth movement, became the most high-profile detainees when they were pulled over in Hashimi’s car in Muscat in April 2011.
"[The security forces] took us and they tortured us," Hashimi says. "They took us to the desert, they tortured us and they said that they would kill us if we returned to our movement. They printed things about us on social media, that we don’t have a reform agenda, that we have a hidden agenda, we are supported by foreign powers."
Like other Arab governments, Muscat often blames public dissent on foreign sponsors, but its paranoia is not directed toward the usual regional bogeyman, Iran, with which it has good relations. Rather, the regime is worried about factions within the ruling family of Abu Dhabi, who they believe want to integrate Oman into the United Arab Emirates.
Al-Hashimi and al-Rajhi both claim that they were beaten with iron rods. Hashimi says he has been receiving medical treatment for damage to his nervous system and has provided medical records to Foreign Policy that confirm he received treatment in April 2011 for injuries consistent with trauma from a blunt instrument. The government denies any torture took place.
The pair were kept in police-run hospitals for several days after the attack, and it was there that al-Rajhi says the tone was set for what was to come. "They took me to a police hospital and gave me a virginity test," she says. "Because they want to create a picture of me, that I am not a fighter but something else. There was a security services guy with me all the time. He was waiting for the test, and he was shocked that I was a virgin. This is how our security forces think."
They returned to the streets, but remained paranoid. They thought — rightly, it turned out — that someone, somewhere, wanted to shut them up for good. "Before and after June 2011, we were being observed," says al-Rahji. "It wasn’t easy to move around Muscat for us. I thought that if I spoke on the telephone they would recognize my voice. My car and my phone were being watched."
Other activists concede that although they were similarly careful with phone calls and text messages but not with their social media activity. No one said anything about what was being written, says one activist, so the attitude was why stop? Now they know.
The security forces, many now think, were waiting for an opportunity to strike when the political situation had become more stable. "In 2011, there was public support so it was difficult for them to do anything," Rahji explains. "In 2012, we lost support [because] people got their economic package."
In a region of extremes, Oman is often depicted as an island of moderation. Muscat, built into vast, jutting volcanic rocks along the country’s northern coastline, is dustier and somewhat more charming than other Gulf capitals. Its array of coffee shops, malls, and hotel bars with plentiful alcohol are enough to convince most expats and visitors that the country is relatively liberal. And although he remains the country’s absolute ruler (Oman has not had a prime minister since the early 1970s) its diminutive leader, the trim, gray-bearded and spectacularly-turbaned Sultan Qaboos bin Said, is seen as open-minded for the region, and holds relatively progressive social views.
Qaboos is also revered by older Omanis, who credit him with turning a poverty-stricken backwater into a modern, wealthy society after seizing power from his father, Said bin Tamur, in a bloodless palace coup. In 2010, the U.N. Development Program (UNDP) reported that improvements in the level of human development in the sultanate over the previous four decades were unparalleled anywhere else in the world.
In the 1990s Qaboos surprised many Omanis by creating a rudimentary constitution, the Basic Law, and in the 2000s worked to increase the visibility of the Majlis al-Shura, an elected consultative body. In neither case had there been widespread calls for reform. Yet when those calls began in earnest last year, the expectation among Oman’s middle classes that there would be bigger step towards accountable governance was met with disappointment.
"I really thought they would go further," says the former government advisor. "A lot of people thought they would appoint a prime minister, but most of the changes they made have been cosmetic." This source is by no means a radical — he believes the activists sentenced this year "got what they were asking for."
The sultan and his inner circle were careful not to dull their popularity during the 2011 demonstrations. While the protesters still enjoyed broad popular support they made sure most of those arrested were set free. Qaboos then set about appeasing Omanis’ economic concerns. As Yemen buckled and sectarian tensions spilled over in Bahrain, he was praised for acting quickly to sack ministers accused of corruption, legislating to improve working conditions and pay, and even introducing limited political reforms.
Familiar red lines remained in place however. Insulting the sultan was and is still a no-go. And although Omanis can generally criticize their government and its policies and even carp publicly about perceived corruption, the country’s ruling and security elite remains sensitive to public scrutiny.
This tension — between a politically engaged group of young Omanis calling for meaningful political change, and the entrenched security, government and business apparatus, which has thrived under Qaboos — is part of a wider trend. Omanis young and old, conservative and liberal, worry that the sultan and his circle have gone as far as they are prepared to on reform. For many that is not far enough.
Unemployment is high, the cost of living is rising and the government has made little in the way of genuine structural changes to encourage job-creation or more accountable governance. Instead, riding on high oil production and prices, it has created new state jobs and increased salaries, something it cannot afford to do in long term, according to several Omani economists.
"At some point, someone is going to have to make some big changes and it will cause a lot of pain," says a former government advisor. "But no one is really willing to and it would hurt the sultan’s popularity too much."
Others worry that where the sultan was once a proactive reformer, he is increasingly on the back foot, reacting to events while his inner circle fights to maintain their own interests. Says one current government official of the elite: "They know they are losing power, and they are afraid of it. They are brainwashed into believing that they are at the heart of the country. The internal security was really shocked that somebody spoke up. And when they put the first three in jail, their friends came out to protest. If you put someone in jail 10 or 20 years ago that was that. But now, things have changed."
All the elite has done by sending so many to jail, says one activist, is buy themselves another year of quiet. The activists interviewed by Foreign Policy remain resolute. They plan to continue to call for political change when they are released. In many ways, they feel they have little other choice. "Our parents stayed silent for 30 years because they appreciated what he [Qaboos] did for the country," says one. "But we are not our parents."
The decision to publicly pillory the activists — prosecutors printed the photographs and names of the protesters tried on August 8 in an apparent attempt to shame their families — may also have backfired. Most feel they have now sacrificed so much that they may as well continue.
"It has been a very deep experience," says al-Rahji. "I am satisfied, I don’t have a problem with it. I have a history of paying the price for my principles, and I have now had too many shocks in my life that make me stronger. I was kidnapped, I am a woman in an Arab country, so I have lost a lot in society. All of what has happened, all the problems I have had [should be worth it]."
Something has changed in the mentality of the wider population, adds al-Hashimi. "If people don’t speak, then something is wrong," he explains. "The normal situation is that the government and the people talk. The unhealthy thing is the absence of discussion. We have the government and the public now watching each other, wondering what they can get from each other. The government wants the people to be quiet, the people want a good life. Before 2011, the government watched the people. But now the people are watching back."
More than anything, the activists feel an opportunity has been missed.
"Last year presented an opportunity to start real change while the sultan is still around, slowly, under his reign so he doesn’t leave us without proper structural institutions, and he leaves us with a proper constitution that would guarantee the stability of the country without him around," says al-Kiyumi.
"We can’t see who is going to follow him, and there is no proper constitution to fill the gap, to make sure the country will still continue running smoothly when he goes. By missing out on this opportunity, they are jeopardizing the authorities, the regime, the stability and the sustainablility of the whole country and that is very sad."
"If they think they can silence us with a year in prison, they are mistaken," she adds. "Stripping people of their rights, if they take everything away from you, then you don’t have anything to lose. So we might as well continue."
There will be one slight difference: they will stay off Facebook.
Peter Salisbury is an independent journalist and analyst, and a consultant researcher at Chatham House’s Yemen Forum. Tom Caverly provided additional editing for this piece.
* This article was updated on October 22, 2012.