Oman’s Days of Rage

A sleepy little sultanate erupts in unexpected anger.

Jackie Spinner
Jackie Spinner

MUSCAT, Oman — In the four decades since Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said came to power in this sleepy sultanate on the Arabian Peninsula, his subjects have lived through the very birth of a modern nation.

Before Sultan Qaboos, at age 29, staged a nonviolent coup against his father, Oman was a forgotten land of mountains and deserts with only a couple of schools, no public health system, few paved roads, and an ancient sea trade in frankincense. It wasn’t that it was backward. Oman just had never come forward, and it was too isolated to even be aware of it.

Today, Oman is a vibrant society, a place that values education and technology, a country that is fat on oil, a monarchy with a constitution called the "White Book" that offers a range of protections to its citizens, including equal rights for women and fairly progressive press laws, as long as the sultan is not discussed or disrespected.

But with all these extraordinary changes, no one in Oman has ever witnessed anything like the public demonstrations of anger and rioting that have gripped this conservative country the past few days, thrusting it into the lineup of Arab populations clamoring for change. The Omani people’s demands may be slightly different from those of their regional brethren. Sultan Qaboos himself may remain well-loved, untouchable even. "His blood runs through us," one protester in the capital Muscat explained, tapping his heart. But in a matter of days, in the time it took for a peaceful sit-in in the industrial city of Sohar to morph into a deadly riot, Oman suddenly seems as vulnerable as any other country in the Middle East.

"I smell the winds of change, and it’s unstoppable," said a man demonstrating on the night of Monday, Feb. 28, in front of the Majlis al-Shura in Muscat, an elected body that advises the government, the only real representation that Omanis have. "The wise government will come and listen and respond before it’s too late," he said, declining to give his name and referring to himself only as "Mr. Incognito." About 250 people held signs and waved Omani flags in front of passing traffic, a remarkably peaceful demonstration compared with the looting and violence 142 miles up the road in Sohar, where at least one person was killed Sunday, Feb. 27, in clashes with riot police.

Their demands are hardly radical; nobody is chanting "down with the sultan." Omani activists are calling instead for an elected prime minister and parliament, the end of alleged corruption, new cabinet ministers, and more economic opportunities for college graduates and young people.

"The people are not against His Majesty," said Sultan Al Bustani, an oil-company executive in Muscat who was at Monday night’s demonstration. "He did a lot for the country. But we need change in the government. We don’t have a say."

This was not Muscat’s first demonstration in recent weeks. On Feb. 18, about 350 protesters marched peacefully in front of the government ministries, rallying against corruption and demanding to know how their country’s oil proceeds have been spent. Protesters carried signs that read, "No to high prices, no to corruption" and "Where is democracy?" At each ministry, the protesters stopped and shouted, "Hey guys, no, no, no to corruption!" At specific ministries, the crowd called out particular slogans such as, "Where is the money from oil and gas?" But when the crowd started to shout about specific ministers, the organizers quickly stopped them and encouraged the protesters not to insult individuals. Protesters argued briefly with police when they tried to enter a road that had been blocked, but the situation was soon calmed. Omani police and soldiers never drew their weapons, a marked distinction from how the Persian Gulf country of Bahrain was reacting to its demonstrators at the time.

This weekend, the protests spread to Sohar as well as the southern city of Salalah. Sohar caught this country off guard on Sunday, when youthful rioters, many with their faces covered in scarves, seized the main roundabout to the city, hurtling rocks at riot police, burning buildings, and looting shops. Omanis, not being used to public displays of any kind, were stunned at the violence and anger in Sohar. "We have never even demonstrated here," said Humaid Al Hajiria, who was at the gathering Monday night to ask for more accountability for the government.

Many of the young college graduates in Sohar complain that the port city’s growing base of foreign companies won’t hire them. They may not be going hungry, but in Sohar, young Omanis need only to look into neighboring Dubai to see what they don’t have. While their parents reach back proudly to see how far they’ve come, these young people look ahead and are disgruntled.

It is not clear what happened exactly Sunday in Sohar, where the roundabout was consumed for most of the day in clouds of smoke and tear gas. Some witnesses said police attacked protesters without reason. Others said the police shot rubber bullets when the crowd attacked a fuel truck and police station. Reuters, citing a hospital official, said that six people had died, but the state-run Oman News Agency said Sunday that only two protesters had died. On Monday, it revised that figure to one.

When asked about Sohar, Said Marjibi, director of protocol for the Majlis al-Shura, shook his head. Like many Omanis, he seemed genuinely surprised by the scope of anger.

"We don’t know what happened," he said.

Some protesters said the government is simply disconnected from its young people, out of touch with their ways and their thinking. Others said the government may not yet understand how deep the anger runs. 

Tariq al-Sabahi, who protested Monday night in Muscat, said it took him six months to find a job even after he completed his master’s degree.

"It’s frustrating," he said. "I was lucky. I eventually found a job, but my sister has a bachelor’s degree in English, and she’s sitting at home. Why can’t she find a job? What’s going on here?"

The sultan has tried to meet some of the protesters’ demands, offering to change cabinet ministers and look into the inflation that has stymied the upwardly mobile. After the violence in Sohar, the sultan ordered the creation of 50,000 jobs, though some protesters questioned how he would do that. He agreed to study giving more authority to the Majlis al-Shura and to grant oversight powers to financial-monitoring institutions, and he offered the equivalent of about $400 a month in unemployment benefits.

Many Omanis expected that the concessions would return Sohar to normal by Monday. But hundreds of protesters continued to gather, blocking the main road to the port and keeping control of the roundabout, essentially shutting down traffic on Oman’s superhighway that connects the north to the south.

Basma al-Kiyu, one of the organizers of the demonstration in the capital, said on Monday that the sultan’s concessions simply were not enough. People are not willing to wait for change to come slowly, she said.

"We want a constitution," she said. "We want a parliament."

Nasser Al Mawali, deputy chairman of the Majlis al-Shura and an elected official — albeit one with no real authority — was at the demonstration on Monday, meeting with protesters.

He said people have a right to demand more of their government.

"We started from zero," he said. "We have achieved a lot. Personally, I’m proud of what we have achieved. But it’s the right of everyone to ask for more. We have to listen to the people."

Omanis on Facebook have called for a nationwide uprising on March 2. The page has attracted more than 2,300 users in a country of about 2.5 million.

"The credibility between the government and people is gone," said Bustani, the business executive. "We don’t have that trust. My big fear is that if the people don’t get a response, there is going to be unpredictable rage."

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