In Oman, a young female editor exemplifies new boldness

Kawkab al-Balushi, a bold student newspaper editor, wants to challenge authority – but disagrees with the divergent approach of some of her more rebellious peers who just 'want a Blackberry,' she says.

By , Correspondent

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    Thousands of Omanis of all ages attend a rally earlier this month in support of their leader of 40 years, Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said, in Muscat, Oman.
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In many ways, 21-year-old Kawkab al-Balushi could be the future of Oman.

She’s already battled resistance from her university to publish a student magazine, continuing to churn out glossy editions after an official reprimand for having started without permission.

By 30, she plans to hold public office on the country’s only elected council. By 32, she will become a minister, she says, helping to run this quiet sultanate that has experienced unprecedented civil unrest in the past month.

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Like nearly everyone in the modern, relatively wealthy Gulf nation, Ms. Balushi professes a deep, unflinching devotion to Oman’s leader of 40 years, Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said.

But she’s also emblematic of a new willingness here to challenge authority after years of public silence. Whereas other Arab revolutions have solidified around a single demand or set of demands, the revolutionary development here may be that Omanis are asking for anything at all – even if they are not unified on what they want or the best way to achieve it.

'They aren't asking for democracy. They want a Blackberry.'

As about 20 male students gathered in the campus quad of Sohar University recently to demonstrate outside the library, Balushi, dressed in a black abaya and a lime-green head scarf, clucks her tongue in disapproval.

“If I were His Majesty, I’d feel so insulted,” she says. “This doesn’t solve anything.”

She also describes how rebellious attitudes have spread to the classroom, recalling a recent incident when students began chatting on their mobile phones in the middle of a lecture and challenging the Canadian teacher in Arabic.

“These demonstrations had a bad effect on everyone,” says Balushi. “They are being rude to everyone. They aren’t asking for freedom and democracy. They want a Blackberry.”

Her reaction to the demonstrations in her country, which so far have been mostly peaceful, highlight the challenges both for those pushing for change and for a government that has responded with unprecedented concessions only to be met with new demands, more strikes, more demonstrations, more protest.

Significant issues, such as government reform and citizenship rights, are getting lost in the noise. It is generally accepted, however, that whatever is happening in Oman, there is no turning back.

“It’s a matter of the pressure building, of people feeling, ‘If we can’t do it now, when can we?' ” says Brenda Bickett, a librarian at Georgetown University who lived in Oman in the late 1980s and visits periodically. “It’s just a sense that, ‘We’re going to do this and see what happens.’ ”

At home, 'Omanis are all politicians'

This is not strictly a youth uprising in Oman, though young people are heartily taking part.

In the northern city of Sohar, where at least one protester was killed in late February during violent clashes with riot police, the protesters are predominantly young men angry about their inability to get jobs, who can’t afford the roughly $25,000 dowry needed to get married.

But in the capital of Muscat, which has seen multiple protests daily for several weeks, all age groups are pressing for higher salaries, more maternity leave benefits, citizenship for the children of Omani women who marry foreigners, better housing allowances, and a myriad of other demands.

In fact, the entire country seems to be protesting something these days.

In one recent example, residents stopped traffic for hours after a child was killed when a school bus collided with a bus at a highway junction north of Barka. Residents complained that they had been asking for safety improvements at the intersection for years. In the new Oman, the Oman that has emerged only in recent weeks, their discontent spilled over into the streets in a spontaneous outburst of public anger – and the police did not intervene.

“Omanis, in the house, are all politicians,” says Badria al-Shihi, an applied chemistry professor at Sultan Qaboos University. “But outside you’re not sure whom you are talking to. I speak freely, and I’ve never had anyone drag me to prison. It’s the fear that this could happen that [kept] people from talking.”

Why government has allowed protests

Indeed, protesting Omanis have met virtually no resistance from the police or military, even as the demonstrations have blocked traffic and disrupted life in neighborhoods where they have occurred. Oman’s restraint stands out in the wider Gulf region, where authorities have violently clashed with protesters in Bahrain and two of Oman’s neighbors – Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

Yet there are some signs that the government may be growing weary of the public displays of expression. During prayers at the main protest site in Sohar on Friday, a government helicopter buzzed over the crowd, disrupting the service.

And the country’s attorney general, Hussein bin Ali al-Hilali, while noting that Omanis enjoy freedom speech told the Times of Oman newspaper last week that the government would investigate demonstrators who use cellphone text messages to “fuel the passions of the people.”

So far, however, there has been no crackdown, and the demonstrations have continued without interruption from the authorities, even as protesters have blocked access to the Port of Sohar and some of the country’s main tourist hotels.

Some protests have even taken on a carnival atmosphere. At the Globe roundabout in Sohar, protesters dine on free meals provided by anonymous benefactors and play music. At the Book roundabout at an entrance to Sultan Qaboos University, the country’s only public college, students have set up tents, and demonstrators sit on blankets drinking tea or working from laptops connected to portable generators.

“Allowing peaceful protest affirms the leadership’s sense of its own stability,” says Mandana Limbert, the author of a book about Oman titled, “In the Time of Oil,” and an anthropologist at Queens College in New York. “It is difficult to say what this means about future change, but it certainly suggests that the state recognizes that violent crackdown may only fuel further frustration and would ultimately not reflect well on the image of the country and its leadership.”

Excited about the future, worried about violence

At Sohar University, Balushi and her classmate Mahfouda al-Ghaithi, both studying English education, say that while they are excited about the future in Oman, the recent demonstrations also have made them fearful.

“I’m not against what is happening,” says Ghaithi, who like Balushi felt afraid when rioters looted and burned businesses during the worst of Sohar’s protests so far. “They have a right to call for their rights but not in this way.”

Students protesting at the nation’s colleges and universities are asking for everything from being able to graduate even if they have failing grades to easing English language requirements for students who want to teach English.

But some demands may place too little responsibility on protesters themselves.

Mohamed Virji, a US Fulbright scholar who taught at Oman Medical College last year, says he was surprised by the high unemployment rates among the young given how progressive the sultanate appears. Part of the problem, however, was their expectations, he says.

“I found that the young adults and the college students did have rather unrealistic expectations about the type of jobs that they were willing to perform,” says Dr. Virji, a pathologist and professor at the University of Pittsburgh. “Most expected to have management and decisionmaking positions where the actual work would be executed by imported workers – professionals in various fields through construction workers, cooks, and domestic help.”

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