DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Protests over mass layoffs and Oman's poor economy spread Tuesday to cities across the sultanate, underscoring the financial challenge ahead for this nation a decade on from its Arab Spring protests.
Oman already faced economic trouble with tens of billions of dollars of outstanding debts and trouble finding enough work for its young people. Then came the coronavirus pandemic and repeated lockdowns that followed, further depressing growth in this nation of 4.5 million people on the eastern edge of the Arabian Peninsula.
“It is, I think, such a huge challenge. It’s not even about the government being incapable of solving things,” said Cinzia Bianco, a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations who studies Oman. “It’s just the challenges are huge and there’s a global crisis going on so there isn't much else they can do right now.”
The demonstrations Tuesday appeared largely peaceful in videos posted to social media and images shared by activists. Sohar, a city some 200 kilometers (125 miles) northwest of the capital, Muscat, remained a flashpoint as it was during the Arab Spring.
But unlike Monday, which saw tear gas fired and demonstrators arrested, police handed out bottles of water to what appeared to be over 100 demonstrators who sheltered from the hot sun under an overpass in the northern city. The protest turned into a sit-in, with demonstrators holding noon prayers there as well.
Omanis shared videos of protests in the cities of Ibri, Nizwa, Rustaq and Sur as well.
The Gulf Center for Human Rights and the Omani Association for Human Rights said those earlier arrested had their mobile phones confiscated by authorities. The activists also said media outlets in Oman, which are tightly monitored, were warned by authorities not to report on the demonstrations.
“The Omani government should immediately end the policy of silencing and restricting public freedoms, including freedom of peaceful protest and freedom of the press,” the groups said.
State media did not acknowledge the protests, instead describing the situation Monday as the jobless coming to the Labor Ministry to “expedite the treatment of their conditions.” Oman's Al-Roya newspaper, however, published images of the demonstrations online for the first time Tuesday after columnists wrote broadly about the economic crisis the day before.
Oman’s Information Ministry and the Omani Embassy in Washington did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
On Tuesday night, Omani state television broke into programming to read an announcement saying Sultan Haitham bin Tariq had ordered 2,000 full-time government jobs be temporarily opened, as well as more part-time work hours be granted. Sultan Haitham's order also included stipends to create a planned 15,000 private-sector jobs for the next two years as well.
The demonstrations mark the first major unrest for Sultan Haitham, who took over in January 2020 after the death of the long-ruling Sultan Qaboos bin Said. State media on Monday referred to employment as “among the most important priorities” of Sultan Haitham.
The pandemic already saw many foreign workers lose their jobs and leave the sultanate, allowing Omanis to take over some work in the aviation, tourism and services industries. However, government statistics show 1.4 million foreigners still live in Oman.
Government debt, once 6% of Oman's gross domestic product in 2014, has spiked to 79%, according to the Fitch ratings agency. Sultan Haitham implemented value-added taxes of 5% last month like several other Gulf Arab nations, which once relied on their oil and gas wealth.
“The social pressure resulting from the low employment rate of young Omanis is a risk to public finances and political stability,” Fitch warned May 18. “The economy and government budget revenues are still not diversified, despite ongoing structural reforms."
Kristin Smith Diwan, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, similarly warned: “There are no easy solutions.”
“Sultan Haitham inherited an indebted state needing serious restructuring, both in its governing institutions and the broader economy,” she said. “The coronavirus pandemic has only made this worse severely hindering the global connections and investment the sultanate needs.”
The protests so far haven't targeted Sultan Haitham directly, instead focusing entirely on economic issues. That's not to say it doesn't pose a risk. Demonstrations have taken place in areas that have festering grievances in the sultanate, including Salalah, which suffered through years of warfare in the Dhofar rebellion that ended in 1976.
“The real danger is that short of a magic trick, the government cannot provide real quick and satisfying solutions to protesters," Bianco warned.
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Jon Gambrell, The Associated Press