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Why Oman is different than other Middle East autocracies in turmoil

In Oman, democratic aspirants are struggling against an absolute monarch who has developed and managed the country far better than most regional autocrats now facing revolt.

By Staff writer / March 1, 2011

Omani people gathered at the main roundabout in Sohar, Oman on Monday. Protesters set a supermarket ablaze and gathered in several sites in Sohar Monday in a third consecutive day of unrest that has included deadly clashes in the strategic Gulf nation.

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Much of the popular protest sweeping the Middle East has targeted tyrants responsible for stagnating the economic or social progress of millions. In Oman, however, the story is more interesting: Democratic aspirants are struggling against an absolute monarch who has developed the country well.

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Demonstrations in Oman entered their fourth day despite a government offer to hire 50,000 people. The protests are centered around Sohar, an industrial port city, where workers are calling for higher salaries and greater freedoms. Protesters have set fire to a supermarket and clashes with security forces have left at least one demonstrator dead.

Oman, which sits at the toe of the Saudi peninsula, is little known by most Americans. When my wife and I decided to vacation there this Christmas, my brother-in-law quipped, “Yeah, I hear Yemen is great this time of year, too.”

But among Europeans and expatriates posted in Dubai and New Delhi, Oman has arrived as a significant tourist destination. Beyond its beaches, frankincense trees, and wadis, the country boasts a more congenial atmosphere than many Arab states.

Until the past few days, it had none of the violent turmoil seen in places like Yemen. It also has neither the massive ranks of the poor like Egypt, nor the idleness of other Gulf oil nations where the locals are bought off and don’t need to lift a finger. While there is a significant “guest worker” population from South Asia, Omanis are not above retail jobs. They man the counters for cellphone carriers and rental car agencies

When we visited this past December, the country was celebrating the 40th year of the reign of Sultan Qaboos bin Sa’id. When Qaboos seized power from his father with the help of the British, the country was deeply isolated from the modern world, with cities locking their medieval gates at night and only three elementary schools that enrolled less than 1,000 students.

The Sultan made education a priority. Today, the country has more than 1,000 public schools and more than 40 institutions of higher education, both public and private. Over those 40 years, Oman experienced one of the steepest climbs up the human development index run by the UN Development Program – outperforming even China’s rise.

Oil, of course, helped the country develop, but so too did Qaboos’s decision to funnel much of the oil money into education and heavy industry.

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