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Day of Rage in Saudi Arabia: How much change can the Gulf expect?

Regime change may not come swiftly to Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia, where protesters have called for a 'Day of Rage' today, but a revolution of a different sort is taking place.

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“It’s all of Oman,” says Yusef Ahmed al Hooti, a risk officer at a Muscat bank who protested Thursday outside of the Majlis al-Shura. “Everyone is talking.”

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Workers at Omantel, the country’s largest telecommunications company, walked off the job this week to demand pay increases, better health insurance, and housing loans despite the fact that a trade union was already working to address the issues with management.

Journalists, TV producers, and actors picketed in front of the Ministry of Information in Muscat this week, demanding more access to government records. They also called for the ouster of the minister, a cultural adviser, and an undersecretary.

And students from at least three universities also protested this week, asking for a range of changes, including more financial allowances and more leniency for students who fail classes.

“The sultan was away from the public,” says Suleiman Nasser al Salmi, an air traffic controller. “His ministers were giving him false information. He was thinking the people were happy. Now he knows. He sees the people are not happy.”

Rumblings of discontent

In addition to Oman, past weeks have seen protests in Bahrain and Kuwait. There have even been rare stirrings in Saudi Arabia, long considered one of the most stable Arab states.

Dr. Jones calls Bahrain the “outlier.” A majority-Shiite nation ruled by the Sunni Al Khalifa family, it has less oil wealth, and what it does have is not distributed equally, in a system rife with corruption and abuse.

The government cracked down hard on protesters in February, killing seven. But protesters have camped out in the capital for nearly a month now, with tens of thousands rallying in the past few weeks. What began as a push for reform has grown into demands by some for the ouster of the royal family.

Kuwait also has a sizable Shiite population, though it is not a majority, and a vibrant political culture with an organized opposition and a parliament. Several hundred protesters gathered in Kuwait on Tuesday seeking the removal of the prime minister.

While the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt sparked the demonstrations in Bahrain and Kuwait, both nations have a history of political opposition and protest, and their parliaments, however weak, serve as an outlet for pressure. That is not the case for Oman or Saudi Arabia.

But there were rumblings of discontent in Oman a decade ago, when protesters demanded better concessions for residents from a natural gas venture in the coastal city of Qalhat.

The sultan was very surprised,” says Dawn Chatty, an Oman scholar at Oxford University who lived in the country for 15 years and returns periodically. “The elders were brought in. It was a stand-off, and eventually the youth pulled back and the company offered better conditions. That was the first time the youth in Oman had challenged authority. Some of us recognized that as the youth bulge got older this kind of thing was going to happen more and more.”

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