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Oman's military steps up recruitment after unemployment protests

Demonstrations broke out across Oman this week over widespread joblessness in the country
Omanis buy fresh food products at the Mawaleh market in the capital Muscat on 12 April 2021 (AFP)

Oman's military has started a recruitment drive in the wake of rare protests in the country over unemployment and a faltering economy.

Protests have been ongoing across the country since Sunday in several regions of the sultanate, which hosts a key British naval base located across the Arabian Sea from Iran.

Videos posted online have shown protesters clashing with police in the first such flare-up since the Arab Spring of 2011 when Omanis took to the streets to demand reforms.

In an apparent attempt to tackle joblessness in the country Sultan Haitham bin Tareq ordered the defence ministry and other government institutions to create 32,000 jobs for Omanis during 2021.

"The Ministry of Defence will... begin to receive job seekers" on Thursday, the official ONA news agency said.

High unemployment

Oman, a country of some 4.6 million people, of whom more than 40 percent are not Omani-nationals, has been hit hard by the fall in world crude prices since 2014 and the coronavirus pandemic.

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The sultanate had been counting on tourism to boost its flagging economy but the virtual collapse of international leisure travel has set back those plans. 

Oman's GDP contracted by 6.4 percent last year, while government debt rose to 81 percent of GDP from 60 percent in 2019, according to International Monetary Fund figures.

Unemployment is running at as much as 10 percent despite government efforts to create more jobs for citizens in a region that has relied on cheap foreign labour for decades.

In April 2020, Oman ordered state-owned enterprises to accelerate the process of replacing foreign staff with Omani citizens. It gave them until July 2021 to draw up firm timetables. 

Protesters blocked roads

The protests this week, which began in the city of Sohar about 200km northwest of the capital Muscat, are the first since Sultan Haitham ascended the throne in January last year, after the death of his cousin Sultan Qaboos, modern Oman's founding father.

The state news agency described the clashes in Sohar as "sabotage".

It said that some of the protesters "blocked roads and vandalised public and private properties in a flagrant violation of the basic law of the State".

Oman is known for its rich history, scenic coastline, and stunning terrain. But it is also seen by Western powers as a key regional mediator with Iran and with the Houthi rebels in Yemen.

On Wednesday night, the sultan received a phone call from Saudi Arabia's King Salman, who "wished the Omani people further progress and prosperity under the wise leadership of His Majesty", an official statement said.