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.

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.

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.

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.

Political reforms have been less dramatic. Over time, Qaboos has introduced universal suffrage and contested elections for the Consultative Council, which plays only an advisory role in government. Since the protests, he has promised to give more powers to the council.

While the sultan is not widely seen as harshly repressive, Qaboos has been dinged by Human Rights Watch for the 2005 incommunicado detention of a playwright who criticized the arrest of 31 antigovernment protesters. Qaboos eventually pardoned the protesters, but witnesses told HRW that security forces had beat the peaceful demonstrators before their arrests.

The regime also filters the Internet, with extensive blocking of pornography and “selective filtering” of political material, according to the OpenNet Initiative in Toronto.

On the other hand, religious freedoms appear to be significantly better than much of the Middle East. While congregations must be registered, the country does allow churches and other non-Muslim worship spaces. “There were no significant reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice,” according to the US State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report 2010.

Qaboos has also become a vital player in backchannel negotiations between Iran and the West. According to a source familiar with Omani transport, the country also serves as a conduit for Russian-made weapons to the US-controlled airfield in Kandahar, perhaps destined for the Afghan National Police.

Older Omanis have lived through their country’s major uplift in living standards, and Qaboos is a respected father figure for many. But he has no children from his failed brief marriage, leaving some anxiety about the question of succession.

During his "40th celebrations," some drivers outfitted their cars with portraits of Qaboos. Around Muscat, a capital city that feels like a life-sized LEGO castle set, giant pictures of the Sultan adorn highways and official buildings. His white beard is meticulously trim and his expression that of a cheerful grandfather, making the displays less creepy than the tough-guy poses struck by Iraq’s Saddam Hussein or the disco dictator imagery of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi.

When I found a tourist magnet with Qaboos’s portrait, I instantly wanted it as an ironic bit of kitsch. My wife nixed the plan, however, saying that she had nothing against him but did not want to see his face every day when she went to the refrigerator.

After 40 years, perhaps some Omanis are feeling something similar.

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