Middle East

Have Oman and Qatar escaped the Arab revolts?

Omani protesters
Image caption Protesters have camped outside Oman's consultative assembly demanding jobs

After revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, uprisings in Yemen and Syria, and serious unrest in the Gulf state of Bahrain, The World Tonight's Robin Lustig reports from Oman and Qatar on whether it is likely there could be more revolts there.

Usually when you see the word Oman, it is preceded by the word "sleepy".

It lies on the south-eastern edge of the Arabian Peninsula, and for centuries it has been valued for its strategic location at the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz, linking the Gulf to the Indian Ocean.

But over the past few weeks, Oman has been stirring from its slumber.

In late February, at least two people were killed during clashes in the city of Sohar between security forces and protesters demanding more jobs.

Ticking time-bomb

"Oman's stability was always just a cover," says activist Basma al-Kiyumi.

She gives credit to the country's ruler, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, for having responded promptly to protesters' demands, but says his words must now be followed by actions.

"Oman," she says, "is still a bomb waiting to explode."

Unemployment is relatively high in Oman, which has only limited oil reserves and is one of the poorest of the oil-producing countries.

Outside the Majlis al-Shura, the consultative assembly, there is a permanent encampment of protesters demanding jobs. They say they will not budge until their demands are met.

Sultan Qaboos has ruled as an absolute monarch for the past 40 years.

He has a reputation as a pro-Western reformer who introduced paved roads, schools and hospitals into what had been a remote and seriously under-developed nation.

But he is now facing unprecedented challenges from the streets as a direct result of the wave of uprisings that has swept through the region.

When I visit Sultan Qaboos university, the country's only publicly-funded university, students are celebrating the launch of Oman's first student newspaper.

"Just within the past few weeks, we've seen much more press freedom," one of them tells me. "You can write things about ministers that never used to be said publicly. There really has been a big change."

Image caption Student journalists launching a paper in Oman are happy there is more press freedom already

The Sultan has been credited with reacting speedily to the protests in February and March.

He sacked 12 of his ministers, increased the minimum wage, and promised to create 50,000 new jobs.

His richer Gulf neighbours are providing cash to help him - after all, none of them wants to see chaos in a country where, because about 40% of all the world's tanker-borne oil passes through the Strait of Hormuz, stability is so vital to their own wealth.

As soon as you mention wealth you think of Qatar, a tiny pinprick of a country half way up the Gulf, sticking out like a thumb from the Arabian peninsula, and now reckoned to be the richest country in the world.

Its total population is around 1.6m, but of those, only about 250,000 are Qatari. The rest are foreign workers who keep the place going, build its gleaming high-rise offices and hotels, and staff its service industries.

Qatar is awash in oil and natural gas, and if you ask why there have been no protests in Qatar, the answer you get is: "Because there's no reason to protest."

Game plan

On the other hand, even if jobs are not a problem in a country with an economic growth rate approaching 20% a year, Qatar is still an absolute monarchy, with a ruler, Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, whose family have run the place since the mid-1800s.

So why are Qataris not demanding democracy, in the same way as so many others are elsewhere in the Arab world?

Image caption "Brand Qatar" is recognised as its strategy of spending wisely and giving generously

The reply I get from a Qatari student is simple enough: "If you have everything you need, who needs democracy?"

But wouldn't they at least like a public debate over the Emir's decision to send Qatari warplanes to join the Nato-led military operation in Libya?

There is no need, I am told, because just about everyone agrees that it is right for Qatar to help fellow-Arabs in their hour of need.

As for the paradox of a country with no semblance of democracy sending warplanes to help people fighting for democracy thousands of miles away - there's no paradox at all, I am told.

The involvement in Libya is simply designed to help save lives. It has nothing to do with democracy.

Qatar prides itself on its ability to make friends (how many countries can you think of who manage to remain on good terms with both the US and Iran?).

"Brand Qatar" is what some people call it - spend wisely, give generously, and keep your name in the public eye.

And if it helps you to win the right to host the World Cup football tournament in 2022, well, no-one in Qatar is complaining.

Robin Lustig is reporting from Oman and Qatar this week on The World Tonight at 2200 BST on BBC Radio 4.

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