What's behind Oman's recent protests?

An aerial view shows the Central Business District (Ruwi) in the Omani capital Muscat on 9 April 2021. (Photo by Haitham AL-SHUKAIRI / AFP) (Photo by HAITHAM AL-SHUKAIRI/AFP via Getty Images)
6 min read
02 June, 2021

Protests broke out in Oman on 23 May with a small group of people gathering outside the Ministry of Labour in Sohar. 

Demonstrators were promptly arrested and footage of the arrests and police firing tear gas went viral.

By the next morning, new, larger protests were erupting in Sohar and other cities across the country, both in reaction to the police reprisal and in solidarity with demands for employment, tax relief, and greater political accountability.

"While the protests may seem like a departure from the country's image as a peaceful and stable paradise, the discontent in Oman has been building for some time"

A repeat police response saw further mass arrests of protesters. On 25 May, demonstrations were held across the country with the slogan: "From Dhofar to Sohar." 

Protests of this breadth have not been witnessed in the country since the 2011 Arab Spring, as organisers countrywide have taken to the streets for marches and peaceful sit-ins.

The protesters' demands

Despite the grassroots and widespread nature of the protests, demands have been uniform. First, Omanis are asking for increased employment and salaries, both of which have suffered from the economic impact of Covid-19 and Oman's slow adoption of economic reform.

Second, protesters are demanding the abolishment of taxes, including the recently introduced VAT for citizens. Third, Omanis are calling for greater accountability for corruption within the state.

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While the protests may seem like a departure from the country's image as a peaceful and stable paradise, the discontent in Oman has been building for some time. 

For instance, calls to stop systematic layoffs of Omanis became a popular theme in March when hundreds of employees of BGP Oil and Gas Services were fired. In response, the General Federation of Oman Workers criticised changes being made to the country's labour laws.

Meanwhile, trade unions on the ground organised peaceful protests in April that have been largely ignored despite their popularity throughout social media.

Sultan Haitham, who has made reform the centre of his rule so far, has responded to economic demands with a promise to provide 32,000 jobs for Omanis during 2021. However, most of the 32,000 jobs were already part of the annual economic plan for 2021.

Of those promised jobs only 2,000 are going to be available immediately, and those are only temporary contracts in military and civil service positions rather than in Oman's core industries, such as oil and gas. 

Promises of public fund disbursements announced alongside the jobs are piecemeal and restricted, and similarly do little to address the protesters' core demands for institutional change.

At the beginning of 2021, a new five-year plan and state budget were implemented with the aims of reducing state spending and raising money to finance the national debt. Importantly, for the people of Oman, this included the phasing out of subsidies on utilities, like electricity and water, a move which was widely criticised and even raised opposition from members of Oman's legislative body, the Majlis A'Shura.

"Omanis are asking for increased employment and salaries, both of which have suffered from the economic impact of Covid-19 and Oman's slow adoption of economic reform"

Further economic policies have added pressure on the Omani population, including the introduction on 16 April of a 5% VAT meant to raise revenue for the country's struggling state budget. While exceptions have been made for essential commodities, it is clear that VAT will be a permanent feature in the life of Omanis going forward.

Demonstrators’ political demands are the most threatening to the Sultanate's stability, as greater political accountability has been called for in the absolutist state since before the Arab Spring. 

Sultan Haitham instituted wide reforms in the state's administrative structure in a series of royal decrees in August 2020 and issued a new basic law and Council of Oman law in January 2021.

While these reforms were meant to bring more accountable and technocratic governance to the Sultanate, criticisms abound about the weakness of Oman's legislature in relation to the executive and the lack of transparency and consultation in major decisions like VAT implementation.

Dozens of protesters angry over sackings and the economy of Oman marched in Sohar on 25 May 2021. [AP]
Protesters angry over sackings and the economy marched in Sohar on 25 May 2021. [AP]

Response to the protests

Police and security forces have quickly suppressed the protests, with mass arrests taking place and tear gas used against protesters.

Omani human rights organisations based overseas have begun campaigning on behalf of protesters arrested or facing intimidation.

The Omani Centre for Human Rights has called for the release of Ibrahim Al Balushi and Meshaal Al Ma'amari, both arrested during the protests. Al Ma'amari has not been allowed to contact a lawyer and his family has not been told where he is being held. 

While the names of those arrested and released are becoming known, the scale and speed of arrests and the state's tight grip over information make it difficult to know exactly how many Omanis are arrested and who they are.

As Omani activist and founder of the Omani Centre for Human Rights Nabhan Al Hanshi notes, "It cannot be known the exact number as some families of the detained people are silent about it, but we are sure that since the beginning of these protests around Oman, more than a hundred were arrested and or detained, most of them have been released already."

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As with protesters arrested during Oman's 2011 Arab Spring, their release is often conditional on coerced agreements never to protest again, as well as public statements of support for the police or security services. 

As Nabhan Al Hanshi says, "Some of those arrested were forced to speak and tweet kindly about how the authority treated them with respect during the detention".

This coercion of protesters into public support is not the only way the Omani state manages public perception. State media has also mobilised against protesters, with the state-run television channel Oman TV and the state news outlet Oman New Agency running commentary on how protesters "assaulted policemen, by-passers, and road users" and "vandalised public and private properties."

"Protests of this breadth have not been witnessed in the country since the 2011 Arab Spring, as organisers countrywide have taken to the streets for marches and peaceful sit-ins"

Echoes of the Arab Spring

Naturally, memories of the 2011 Arab Spring are resurfacing. One Omani, Abdulaziz Al Balushi, displayed the scars from what appeared to be beating and torture he received following his arrest in 2011. He has spoken since, declaring the scars are from his father, but sources in Sohar claim that he was forced to say that.

Speaking presciently at the end of April, former foreign minister and long-time political figure Yusuf bin Alawi said, "Perhaps, one spring in our Arab region is not enough, because nothing has changed." 

The people are raising attention to the fundamental challenges facing Oman, and the spectre of 2011 hangs over the protesters.

Whether Oman creates another generation of young people politically educated through arrest, detention, and torture depends on the state's and the Sultan's willingness to institute meaningful economic and political reform in the name of his people.

James Tarik Marriott is a London-based freelance journalist and researcher focusing on the Arabian Gulf. His writing has been featured in the Omani Centre for Human Rights, History Today, and the London Magazine. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jtamarriott