Oman protests intensify as Sultan struggles to appease demonstrators

Oman protests come with calls for economic improvements and political reform, but stop short of demanding removal of the Gulf state's Sultan Qaboos.

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Omani nationals watch smoke rise from Lulu hypermarket in Sohar, Oman, Monday, Feb. 28. Omani security forces have blocked roads to Sohar, about 120 miles northwest of the capital of Muscat, after deadly clashes between pro-democracy protesters and riot police.

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After avoiding the wave of protests sweeping the Middle East for months, Oman has entered its third day of continuous demonstrations. Local media is reporting that demonstrators have set fire to a supermarket, cars, a police station, houses, and the governor’s residence amid protests calling for economic improvements and government reform.

The nation’s ruler, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, has so far announced the creation of 50,000 new government jobs and an unemployment program that will pay job seekers $390 per month until they find work, reports CNN.

These concessions appear to have done little to quiet protesters, whose demands include an increase in power for the legislative body, although they have stopped short of calling for the resignation of Sultan Qaboos. The leader has so far replaced six cabinet members, the Guardian reports.

“We want new faces in the government and we have a long list of social reforms,” Habiba al-Hanay, a 45-year-old civil servant, told the Guardian. “We just hope he will hear us and make changes.”

The most violent protests have taken place in the industrial port city of Sohar, where thousands of demonstrators are said to have clashed with police on Sunday. There are conflicting reports as to whether police fired live ammunition or rubber bullets at demonstrators and how many people have died in the protests. Oman’s health minister said only one protester died in Sohar, but Reuters reports that doctors in Sohar’s main hospital recorded six deaths.

Demonstrators have cited a lack of jobs and poor economic prospects as their main dissatisfaction, reports the Financial Times. Oman has more modest oil reserves than most of its Gulf neighbors, although its industrial and service sectors weathered the economic crisis better than those sectors in other parts of the region.

“There is no work, and even those with jobs have salaries that aren’t enough,” said protester Mohammed Said in the Financial Times article.

Oman is the oldest independent Arab nation and together with Iran it controls the Strait of Hormuz at the entrance to the Persian Gulf. Nearly 40 percent of the world’s oil tankers must pass through this waterway, according to the Associated Press. (Editor's note: This paragraph was amended to reflect the correct name for the body of water.)

Oman has enjoyed good relations with the United States and Britain, reports the BBC. Qaboos has ruled the country since wresting control from his father in a bloodless coup in 1970. Although there is a Consultative Assembly, it has no legislative powers and can only act in an advisory role and not all Omani adults can vote to elect members of the assembly. According to a BBC report on the country, his policies have been popular despite the lack of a democratic government.

Many demonstrators have chanted slogans such as, “We want democracy,” calling for the 84-member Assembly to be given legislative power. Political parties and activism are also forbidden in the sultanate, reports Iran's PressTV.

This level of unrest is unprecedented in Oman, which has experienced economic liberalization and modernization in the last couple of decades.

“It's a very sedate, very tranquil, country,” Jackie Spinner, a journalist who was in Sohar during the protests, told Al Jazeera. “Most of the Omanis that I've talked to have said they haven't seen anything like this in the last four decades ... they have not seen this level of anger, or any widespread demonstrations against the government, in the past 40 years.”

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