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Oman: Sultan Qaboos still popular despite discontent

By Fergus Nicoll
BBC News, Muscat

image captionMost Omanis are fiercely loyal to Sultan Qaboos

The conversation was going smoothly until I mentioned the possibility of Oman following Egypt and Tunisia, with the removal of the head of state, Sultan Qaboos.

The reaction from Ghada al-Harthy, a young catering manager, was horror and outrage: "Oh my God, no! That's an insult to us!" she exclaimed.

"We are not Tunisia, we are not Libya. Our leader is loved, he is not corrupt and I would be willing to lay out my life on the line for him."

We were talking at the heart of a 3,000-strong march beside the towering Grand Mosque in central Muscat.

It was the biggest demonstration yet in Oman: men and women draped in flags and Omani football scarves, carrying portraits of the sultan and chanting slogans of praise and patriotism.

The banners were equally fulsome: "His Majesty - gift of God to residents of Oman" and "We salute His Majesty's wise leadership".

Many in the crowd had responded to an extraordinary mass text-messaging campaign, in which every Omani citizen had received repeated invitations from early morning.

Opposition? Us?

So far, so predictable.

But what is more surprising is that the activists who have been holding marches and staging sit-ins - protesting against government corruption, cronyism and indifference in the face of rising unemployment among the young - are equally emphatic in their declarations of undying loyalty to the sultan.

Ahmad al-Makheini was a senior policy adviser to the Majlis al-Shura, the lower house of the Omani parliament. But he was a conspicuous presence at a march for change in Muscat in January - and he is running for parliament in October's election on a reformist platform. Just don't call him an "opposition" candidate.

"There is no opposition as such," he told the BBC, "and I hate any attempt to describe people who are expressing their demands and their interests as opposition."

The Majlis al-Shura has in recent days become the venue of choice for a bewildering range of protests, large and small.

Jobs, the minimum wage, state handouts, corruption at ministerial level, cronyism, grants for dowries - all these issues and more have attracted Omanis to the small encampment of blue tents outside the front gate of the parliament building.

In the midday heat, the protest at the Majlis dwindles to a handful of activists - but evening and the end of the working day bring hundreds more.

Compare this to Tahrir Square in Cairo or the tear-gas-drenched protests of Tunis, and it looks like a damp squib after a pyrotechnic firework display. But even minor changes can be pretty seismic in their own small way.

Oman has never experienced political dissent, and even open debate is rare. For Ahmad al-Makheini, the core demands are constitutional reform and an end to corruption.

But what about multi-party democracy? Parties are banned in Oman, and Sultan Qaboos rules by decree, informed by advisers in parliament.

"In a society where tribalism has been strong, it can be a challenge to develop a multi-party system," he says.

"As to ruling by decree, His Majesty could appoint a prime minister, who would then be responsible for establishing a government, vetted by the Shura council and His Majesty himself. This government would then be the people's choice."

Sohar factor

This mild non-revolution has attracted international attention because of what happened in Sohar on 28 February, a small town with an ancient maritime tradition 220km (137 miles) north of Muscat.

Sohar is now trying to outdo its past by building for the future: a $15bn (£9bn) deep sea port facility, run as a 50-50 joint venture by the port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands and the Sohar Industrial Port Company.

But seven years of rapid change have left many Sohar residents behind, With the construction of the port complete, most available jobs are too hi-tech for unskilled locals.

Resentment at rising unemployment worsened when a decree from the sultan increasing the minimum wage backfired, prompting some local companies to fire Omani employees for being too expensive.

Stir in anger at corruption and the general haughtiness and lack of accountability in government and you have nearly all the ingredients for serious and angry protest.

All it took to blow the top off the boiling pot was the heavy-handed police response to an initially peaceful march in Sohar.

This explains the precise targeting of the four buildings that were torched by demonstrators: a police station, the provincial governor's house, the local office of the ministry of manpower and the Lulu hypermarket, one of a chain associated with the business interests of a cabinet minister.

Roundabout protests

Protests have been allowed to continue at Sohar, but in a highly contained form. The focal point, a roundabout on the main coastal motorway dominated by an enormous globe, now lies at the centre of an exclusion zone, with perimeter roadblocks keeping all traffic away.

There is a strong military presence on all the roads leading into Sohar, with traffic from Muscat to the south and from the border with the United Arab Emirates to the north passing through army checkpoints.

So far, calm has been restored. But the family of one man killed in the disturbances are still awaiting the return of his body. They suspect that the authorities are holding back because they fear that a public funeral might excite further demonstrations.

Meanwhile, the earlier violence at Sohar has galvanised Omanis on all sides of the debate.

"What happened at Sohar was not fair!" shouted one man at the pro-Qaboos march.

"The actions of a few misguided people have angered and embarrassed us," I was told in Muscat.

"If we want corruption to end, we have to face it with dignity and respect, not violence."

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