DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – Protests against Oman’s massive layoffs and poor economy spilled over into cities across the sultanate on Tuesday, underscoring the country’s financial challenge a decade after its Arab Spring protests.
Oman was already facing economic problems with tens of billions of dollars in unpaid debt and difficulty finding enough work for its young people. Then came the coronavirus pandemic and the repeated lockdowns that followed, which further depressed the growth of this country of 4.5 million people on the eastern end of the Arabian Peninsula.
“This is, I think, a huge challenge. It’s not even that the government is unable to solve things, ”said Cinzia Bianco, a member of the European Council on Foreign Relations who studies Oman. “It’s just that the challenges are huge and there is a global crisis going on, so there isn’t much else to do at the moment.”
Tuesday’s protests appeared largely peaceful in videos posted to social media and images shared by activists. Sohar, a town some 200 kilometers northwest of the capital, Muscat, has remained a flashpoint as it was during the Arab Spring.
But unlike Monday, which saw tear gas firing and protesters arrested, police distributed water bottles to what appeared to be more than 100 protesters who had taken shelter from the scorching sun under an overpass in the north. from the city. The protest turned into a sit-in, with protesters also holding noon prayers there.
The Omanis also shared videos of protests in the towns of Ibri, Nizwa, Rustaq and Sur.
The Gulf Center for Human Rights and the Omani Association for Human Rights said those previously arrested had their cell phones confiscated by authorities. Activists also said Oman’s closely watched media have been warned by authorities not to report on the protests.
“The Omani government should immediately end the policy of silence and restriction of public freedoms, including the freedom of peaceful demonstration and freedom of the press,” the groups said.
State media did not recognize the protests, instead describing the situation on Monday as unemployed people coming to the Ministry of Labor to “speed up the processing of their conditions.” However, the Oman Al-Roya newspaper first posted images of the protests online on Tuesday after columnists spoke widely about the economic crisis the day before.
Oman’s Ministry of Information and the Oman Embassy in Washington did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
On Tuesday evening, Omani state television broke into the programming to read an announcement saying that Sultan Haitham bin Tariq had ordered the temporary opening of 2,000 full-time government jobs, as well as the granting of more. part-time working hours. Sultan Haitham’s order also included allocations to create 15,000 private sector jobs planned for the next two years as well.
The protests mark the first major unrest for Sultan Haitham, who took over in January 2020 after the death of long-ruling Sultan Qaboos bin Said. State media said on Monday that employment was “one of the most important priorities” of Sultan Haitham.
The pandemic has already seen many foreign workers lose their jobs and leave the sultanate, which has allowed Omanis to resume some jobs in the aviation, tourism and service sectors. However, government statistics show that 1.4 million foreigners still live in Oman.
Public debt, which was once 6% of Oman’s gross domestic product in 2014, has risen to 79%, according to rating agency Fitch. Sultan Haitham introduced 5% value-added taxes last month, as did several other Gulf Arab countries that once depended on their oil and gas wealth.
“Social pressure resulting from the low employment rate of young Omanis is a risk to public finances and political stability,” Fitch warned on May 18. “The economy and government budget revenues are still not diversified, despite ongoing structural reforms.
Kristin Smith Diwan, senior researcher at the Institute for the Arab States of the Gulf in Washington, also cautioned: “There are no easy solutions.”
“Sultan Haitham inherited an indebted state in need of serious restructuring, both in its government institutions and in the economy in general,” she said. “The coronavirus pandemic has only made matters worse, severely hampering global connections and the investments the Sultanate needs.”
The protests so far have not directly targeted Sultan Haitham, but have instead focused entirely on economic issues. This does not mean that it does not present a risk. Protests have taken place in areas with festering grievances in the sultanate, including Salalah, who suffered from years of war during the Dhofar rebellion that ended in 1976.
“The real danger is that without a magic trick, the government cannot provide real quick and satisfactory solutions to the demonstrators,” Bianco warned.
Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.