The autumn of 2010 saw the small gulf state of Oman united in celebration. It marked the 40th anniversary of the accession of Sultan Qaboos to the throne, the moment at which Oman’s steady march towards modernisation began. Distinguished guests such as Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain and King Abdullah of Jordan attended the festivities: a military tattoo, in which an epic military poem was performed, culminating in a spectacular fireworks display. These events followed the National Day Festival and the construction of the first Omani Opera House.
His reign is indeed a cause for celebration: having deposed his father Said bin Taimur in 1970, who refused to invest the country’s oil wealth, Sultan Qaboos has steered Oman from international obscurity and transformed it into a nation whose GDP per capita of $27 000 exceeds that of some Western European countries. In 2010 the United Nations Development Programme ranked Oman as the country that had made the most progress in the past 40 yearsi – an appropriate indication of his achievements.
Fast forward three months, and two protesters had been killed and five wounded in the northern, industrial town of Sohar. The Arab Spring had been triggered a month beforehand as Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight to protest actions of the Tunisian government, and the fever did not take long to spread.
I was based in Muscat at the time of the protests, and there was nothing to indicate the violence that would occur. The only sign of resistance was a small group strung out along the Sultan Qaboos highway, whereas the march organized in support of the Sultan days later attracted thousands of Omanis, a figure admittedly boosted by the government’s mass text messages encouraging them to do so.
These events came as a surprise due to Oman’s reputation as a moderate, peaceful nation, whose steady development has gone almost unnoticed for the past few decades – an impressive feat in a turbulent region that often receives negative headlines in the Western media.
However, Oman is not without its problems. Several factors that have already created such a powder keg in North Africa are equally as present in the Gulf state. Oman has a young population, over 30% of which is aged 14 or younger, and which has a median age of 24ii. There is a clear lack of available jobs to occupy this new generation: a recent survey registered the level of unemployment at 24.35%iii.
Additionally, a number of protesters demanded an investigation into certain Ministers suspected of corruption, including those removed from their post, one of the concessions made by the Sultan.
Currently, Oman is an absolute monarchy: there is an elected advisory body called the Shura council, but ultimate legislative power resides with the Sultan, who acts as Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary and Head of the Armed Forces.
The Omani constitution forbids the existence of opposition political parties, and according to a report made by the US Department of State, Omani law ‘prohibits criticism of the Sultan in any form or medium’.
The large majority of Omanis, particularly the older generation, deeply respect the Sultan, and are grateful for their country’s development under his stewardship. Consequently these restrictions have not been regarded as an issue, until now.
The Sultan and his council introduced certain measures designed to appease the protesters. In addition to reshuffling his ministers he promised the creation of 50,000 jobs, unemployment benefits, and a raise in the minimum wage, which is currently a key concern for Omanis due to the high cost of living.
Most of the expats I spoke to at the time these measures were announced doubted their effectiveness – if these jobs were to be created out of thin air, why had they not existed previously? The International Monetary Fund agreed with this view, stating: ‘These measures have alleviated short-term pressures stemming from high unemployment, but do not address the underlying problems’iv.
They had, nevertheless, appeared to have brought the simmering protests to an end, until August this year, when a court jailed 12 protesters for participating in what was deemed an ‘illegal gathering’ by an Omani Court. Their grievances were a perceived lack of progress on promises made a year earlier. This followed a strike by oil industry workers, who demanded an increase in wages and improved safety in the workplace. This hit the country where it hurts economically, as oil remains the greatest contributor to Oman’s GDP.
This resurgence resulted in a clampdown on liberties in the country. As Amnesty International reported, around 22 protesters had been arrested on 11 June, while the Oman’s Public Prosecution criticized those ‘inciting’ fellow citizens under ‘the pretext of freedom of expressions’v.
Most significantly of all, there has been public criticism of the Sultan for the first time – according to Reuters, 10 citizens were jailed for a period of 18 months for ‘comments directed against Sultan Qaboos on social media websites’vi – a possibility that had previously been unthinkable.
It appears that instances such as these are the exception rather than the rule – there still exists widespread affection and respect for Sultan Qaboos for the way that he steered the country away from civil war, towards a prosperous state with schools, hospitals, and excellent infrastructure. However, with a number of its Arab allies now beginning to make the transition towards democracy, the job of maintaining an absolute monarchy may not prove so easy for his successor, whoever that may be. Thanks to his impressive achievements the security of the Sultan’s position is guaranteed for now. But with Oman’s oil reserves beginning to dwindle, unemployment still high, and the diversification of its economy still some way off, this will not be the end of political unrest in the friendly Gulf state. It may require the passing of a beloved ruler before real political change occurs in Oman.