Trouble in Oman

With Gaddafi on the way out, the mantle of longest-surviving Arab autocrat will shortly pass to Sultan Qaboos, the British-backed ruler of Oman. Or perhaps not, since his regime is now coming under popular pressure too. 

Protests have been reported this weekend in two Omani cities at opposite ends of the country – Suhar in the north-east and Salalah in the south-west – as well as in the capital, Muscat.

The disturbances in Suhar (or Sohar) were met with plastic bullets and at least two people are reported to have been killed. Vehicles were set alight and there seems to have been an attempt to storm a police station.

The video above shows scenes in Suhar on Saturday. More have been posted here on YouTube.

Qaboos has attempted to buy off the protesters by reshuffling his ministers and announcing a series of measures which his foreign ministry website describes (unsurprisingly) as "highly commendable and far-sighted". These include an increase in allowances for students.

Oman is a sparsely populated country – about 300,000 sq km in area with just 2.3 million citizens (plus half a million or more foreigners). It has a high birth rate and a very low death rate, leading to the familiar Arab problem of a "youth bulge". Forty-three per cent of Omanis are aged under 15.

It is difficult to judge how much of a threat the current protests pose to the regime. It appears from their slogans that the protesters are at present seeking "reform" rather than the sultan's overthrow – though of course that might change. Their grievances are the usual ones: corruption, rising prices and a lack of freedom.

At the same time, the 70-year-old sultan's attitude appears patronising and complacent – suggesting that, like Ben Ali and Mubarak before him, he doesn't really comprehend the magnitude of the problem.

As in Tunisia, the Omani regime has been able to maintain control because people are nervous about stepping out of line, but it is doubtful whether the security forces would be capable of handling mass civil disobedience if the fear barrier is broken. In that respect, Suhar may be the key place to watch, since it is Oman's main industrial centre.

Assessing the stability of Oman in 2004, Middle East specialist Mark Katz wrote

"The political challenges it faces are the extreme concentration of authority in the hands of one man (Sultan Qaboos), the sultan's unwillingness to allow meaningful political participation or dialogue, political legitimacy issues concerning both Sultan Qaboos and the succession process he has set up, and sporadic but persistent signs of opposition."

Qaboos, who owns seven palaces, four yachts and a 120-member classical music orchestra, has long-standing ties with Britain.

Educated partly in England, he went to Sandhurst military college and served for a couple of years in the British army. He later paid for sports pavilions which carry his name at both Sandhurst and the RAF college, Cranwell.

Qaboos came to power in 1970 by deposing his paranoid father with British support. His father, Said bin Tamur, then went into luxurious exile at the Dorchester Hotel in London.

There's no doubt that the British government will be monitoring events in Oman very closely but I doubt that it will make much effort to keep Qaboos in power. At this late stage he is clearly not capable of introducing reforms on a scale that would satisfy young Omanis and Britain may well decide to ditch him, as it did his father. Rooms at the Dorchester are available from £306 per night.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 27 Feb 2011.