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Calls for change undimmed three years after foiled 'Oman Spring'

Demands for constitutional and economic reforms remain despite widespread crackdowns
Three years ago an 'Omani Spring' saw thousands of protesters seek change (AFP)

In early 2011, protests erupted in the Sultanate of Oman, with people calling for political changes to empower a parliament lacking legislative authority and for economic reforms to remedy high unemployment. Three years on and the government has implemented a raft of initiatives aimed at dealing with the protestors’ demands. These reforms, however, have failed to appease opposition, with activists complaining of a severe crackdown by security services and fiercely criticising leaders who they say lack a clear vision for the country.

There has been little coverage of developments in Oman, with domestic media shackled by censorship and international outlets more concerned with the country’s geostrategic importance - it neighbours Saudi Arabia and Iran, and borders the Strait of Hormuz, a key oil supply route. But media silence, has not shielded Oman from the wider reverberations that have rocked the Middle East in recent years.  

In early 2011, popular protests known as the “Omani Spring” quickly spread across the country, beginning in the northern port city of Sohar before taking hold in the capital Muscat and then in the southern provincial capital, Salalah.

Thousands of people set up camp at the central roundabout in Sohar to call on the government to solve an unemployment crisis that had left an estimated 25 percent of under-25s without work. In Muscat, a group of intellectuals wrote to the ruler Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said to ask him to introduce a constitutional monarchy, while thousands more took to the streets in protest.

The government responded to these peaceful protests in kind. Security services used tear gas and rubber bullets to break up protests in Sohar, killing two young protestors, and arrested swathes of people across the country which is home to two million nationals and over 800,000 non-nationals.

After the initial crackdown, Sultan Qaboos moved quickly to pacify unrest by announcing 50,000 new public sector jobs and a minimum wage for private sector employees, while also pledging to double the number of higher education places at universities. Qaboos also sacked 12 government ministers and promised to tackle widespread corruption in the country.

This constituted an “emergency response” by the government, mirroring reactions seen elsewhere. Although each Gulf monarchy has seen differing levels of unrest since 2011, all of them have responded by increasing public sector pay packages and locking up dissidents.

The protests in Oman died down as a result of the government response but they have sporadically taken place since, most notably in May 2012 when authorities arrested 30 activists, bloggers and writers who were eventually sentenced to 12 months in prison for defaming the Sultan. Activists say the security services have tortured political prisoners, and according to a report by the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), a rights group, “torture has become the state’s knee jerk response to political expression”.

Khalfan al-Badwawi, an activist who was arrested several times for protesting, says the role of the security services has increased: “everyone is scared of them, security officers even closed down a book group because they were reading books by Noam Chomsky and banned a social club from playing football on the beach”. 

Melanie Gingell, a board member of the GCHR, describes Oman as, “one of the most restrictive countries in the region” and has called for an impartial investigation into all allegations of torture.

Omani authorities have refused to comment on the use of torture and analysts say a failure to deal with this could lead to further protests. Marc Valeri, an Omani specialist from Exeter University, told MEE that, “the repression has been tough and whilst there are no immediate signs of renewed unrest the structural conditions for protest are there”. 

The government’s expensive economic initiatives have been criticised, with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) saying the country must diversify the economy to ease reliance on the public sector. The IMF says increased government spending means the breakeven price of oil for Oman will rise to $120 by 2018. With Brent Crude Oil currently trading at $107 per barrel they forecast there could be a government budget deficit of 3.8% as soon as 2015. This would be unprecedented as the Gulf States have always run surpluses due to plentiful energy resources.

A committee has now been established by the government to formulate the “Oman Vision 2040”, which will evaluate “the current social and economic status” and “address the future in an objective manner.” Corresponding initiatives to increase Omani employment in the private sector and root out grievances like corruption are also on the up.

In March, the CEO of the state-owned Oman Oil Company was sentenced to 23 years in prison for accepting bribes, a move that led an anonymous Omani banker to say, “if you go to board rooms, everyone is discussing it and how it may affect their business”. Meanwhile in February, the government announced that it would axe 100,000 expatriate jobs, in order to help Omanis secure better paid jobs. When finalised, the move could reduce the percentage of the foreign working population from 39 to 33 percent. This policy is known as “Omanization” but it remains to be seen how effective it will be as employers complain foreign labour is cheaper and Omanis lack the necessary skills. 

The issue of political reform, however, continues to be a thorny one, with little sign the Sultan is thinking of meeting the protestors’ demand of turning the country into a constitutional monarchy.

Repercussions for those who continue to picket for change, remain harsh. A member of the Consultative Assembly - a body whose members are elected but lack legislative authority as all laws must be approved by the Sultan - was arrested in August 2013 after he took part in a protest against petrochemical pollution in Sohar. Talib al-Maamari was sentenced to three years in prison for “undermining the status of the state”, although his case was recently referred back to the Appeals Court for review.

Reforms under the veil of conservatism? 

While a constitutional monarchy does not appear to be on the government’s agenda, some analysts believe the 73-year-old Sultan Qaboos may be paving the way for political reform by refusing to name a successor. Christopher Davidson, reader in Middle East Politics at Durham University, says there “could be a deliberate ploy by Sultan Qaboos to ensure a future ruler does not possess unlimited power, forcing them into a national dialogue on the issue of a constitutional monarchy”.

Since Sultan Qaboos overthrew his father in 1970 there has been a policy of building a cult of personality around him.

“Sultan Qaboo’s legitimacy has relied on the double assimilation of all Oman to ‘the state’ and then of ‘the state’ to the person Qaboos himself,” says Exeter’s Valeri.

In the absence of a named successor, a future ruler may not be able to rely on such legitimacy and could be forced into engaging meaningfully with the Omani people on the issue of political reform.

Either way, three years on from the “Omani Spring” there is a widespread feeling that the country is in a sort of holding pattern. The government’s emergency response to the protests has provided some short-term economic solutions, while increased repression from the security services has spread fear but also resentment.

An organiser of the Sohar protests, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals, told MEE that, “we have given up on protests for the time being, instead focusing on trying to educate our people about their rights”. But the desire for deep reforms remains. 

Badwawi, who fled Oman due to his activism and now lives in exile in the UK, remains optimistic that the reform movement will win the day.

“I am hoping for a peaceful future in which our government respects the people’s rights within a constitutional monarchy,” he said. “It is impossible to remove these desires from the youth who have awoken and will not go back to sleep”.

If the government, and the next ruler, hope to pacify these aspirations they will have to overcome significant challenges and formulate a sustainable economic vision while answering the continuing issue of political reform in Oman – a route they have so far proven slow to adapt.