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Oman vote masks deeper malaise as reforms stutter

Upcoming elections in Oman may not be enough to extinguish longstanding calls for democratic reform

Reuters , Wednesday 12 Oct 2011
Oman
Oman's leader Sultan Qaboos (Photo: Reuters)
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This month's election in Oman may give the small Gulf sultanate a glossier democratic veneer, but it is unlikely to bury the discontent exposed by protests in February inspired by Arab uprisings elsewhere.

Sultan Qaboos bin Said, an absolute ruler who deposed his father in 1970, responded to the unrest, in which five people were killed in the main industrial city of Sohar, with promises of reform and handouts.

These have helped to calm the streets, although protests demanding the release of prisoners simmered into September, and Oman's three million people remain mostly loyal to the sultan.

Yet many fret at the absence of real political change in a southeastern Arabian country strategically located at the entrance to the Arabian Gulf that fails to generate enough jobs to meet the demands of a small but rapidly growing population.

Sultan Qaboos, 70, has won credit for using Oman's limited oil revenue on social and economic infrastructure, but he has yet to offer Omanis a roadmap to genuine popular representation.

"The bottom line is that the election may not change anything at all," said Abdullah Alabri, a 26-year-old Oman Air pilot. "It's just a way of gaining a good image and making people feel a sense of democracy whereas, in reality, after the election we would not attain anything significant."

Ostensibly, the Oct. 15 vote for the 84-member Shura council should matter this time.

Candidates elected to the advisory body will become part of the Oman Council, along with an appointed upper house. The council for the first time is to be given some legislative and regulatory powers.

But uncertainty, even cynicism, about how much authority the Council will be allowed to wield has reduced expectations among Oman's half a million registered voters. Turnout is not expected to top the 28 percent recorded in the last election in 2007.

"There is no reason why participation should be higher. People who were already disillusioned in 2007 will not be more confident in 2011," said Marc Valeri, a Middle East politics lecturer at Essex University.

Nearly seven months after Sultan Qaboos issued the Oman Council decree, little has been heard from a technical committee that was to prepare constitutional amendments.

More than 522,000 voters have registered this year, compared with 388,000 in 2007, the Interior Ministry said.

The streets of Muscat, the white-washed capital hugging the coast, are dotted with campaign billboards for some of the 1,300 candidates of both sexes, up from 700 in the last election.

Yet many Omanis are underwhelmed by the trickle of reforms since the spasm of protest driven by demands for jobs, higher salaries and an end to graft in Oman, the only Gulf Arab state besides Bahrain to see widescale popular unrest.

The sultan, a US ally who has ruled the non-OPEC oil producer for 40 years, promised a $2.6 billion spending package and 50,000 public sector jobs. He also reshuffled his cabinet three times, sidelining several powerful but unpopular figures.

Khalid al-Haribi, a 34-year-old Shura candidate from the southern town of Salalah, said he was happy with the prompt action taken to raise wages and create jobs.

"However, I am unsatisfied with the slow pace at which all reforms are being implemented," he said.

"The government has been hesitant to give its people the power to question them. But now I get the chance to break that wall, and it's up to the people if they want to break it (too)."

Oman has one of the world's youngest populations -- about 40 percent of its people are under 21, according to official figures -- and youth unemployment is high.

Hundreds of graduates spill into the job market each year with few prospects. The national quota programme, a mechanism used in Gulf states to employ more citizens, has had mixed success. Expatriates still make up some 60 percent of the workforce in Oman, which has less hydrocarbon wealth than neighbours such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

A 2010 UN report ranked Oman first in boosting human development over the past 40 years, but its youngsters still see only limited options and many complain of high-level corruption.

"I haven't taken much interest in this election, because I personally doubt it's going to benefit us," said technician Waheeb Bakri, 30, whose own priority was jobs with better pay.

"Young people are disappointed," said J.E. Peterson, a US-based political analyst. "They don't know the old time. They want to know what the sultan has done for them now.

"Oman is one of the poorer (Gulf) countries and the economic pie hasn't really grown as much as elsewhere," Peterson said.

"Yet there are people within the government who have done very well out of the last 40 years."

Few of the protesters in February called for the overthrow of Sultan Qaboos, who remains generally well-liked.

"Oman ... managed to come out of the whole protest situation without too much damage because the sultan is so popular," said Gala Riani, of London-based IHS Global Insight, noting how many Omanis view Qaboos as misled by a corrupt elite around him.

Omanis have also observed the fate of a pro-democracy movement in Bahrain, where Saudi and UAE troops intervened in March to help a Sunni monarchy crush protests led by majority Shi'ites. The military intervention was carried out under a 30-year-old Gulf security pact of which Oman is a signatory.

The club of Gulf royals is likely to stick together, even when it comes to Oman, which has pursued an independent foreign policy that includes cordial ties with Iran, and which was the first to opt out of a planned Gulf monetary union.

"They've reached the extent of what they dared to do," Peterson said of Oman's protesters.

The government has shown scant tolerance for dissent. In September, it closed a newspaper for reporting on alleged corruption in the justice ministry, dismaying Omani bloggers.

"Shutting down an entire newspaper and sending an editor and journalist to jail for five months doesn't speak well for Oman's justice system," wrote Dhofari Gucci, an Omani woman in Salalah. "It's as if our protests earlier this year never happened."

Qaboos's cabinet reshuffles have also disappointed some educated young Omanis and activists, who had hoped the sultan would name a prime minister, not take on more power himself.

Qaboos is prime minister, chairman of the central bank and commander of the armed forces, as well as minister of defence and foreign affairs. Glacial moves towards devolving power ahead of an eventual succession of a ruler without heirs seem stalled.

"The Oman protests were about fear as much as anything else, fear about where Oman is going," said Essex University's Valeri.

"Even if it was not clearly said, there is a lot of worry about the future."

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