Pro-democracy protests spread to Oman

7 March 2011

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Hundreds of Omanis protest in Sohar, the Gulf country’s second largest city, 28 February. (Karim Sahib/AFP)


SOHAR, Oman (IPS/AJ) - Fresh protests have taken place in the Gulf sultanate of Oman, following a wave of pro-democracy demonstrations across the Arab world. The unrest in Sohar has been a rare outbreak of discontent in the normally calm sultanate of Oman.

Witnesses said troops fired in the air, wounding one person, Tuesday as they attempted to disperse a crowd of protesters near the northern port of Sohar.

“We were about 200 to 300 people in the road. The army started shooting in the air,” one protester said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Many people ran. The man who was shot came to calm the army down.”

The crowd dispersed only to regroup at the nearby Globe Roundabout, located close to the port, and the troops pulled back, witnesses said.

Later, traffic started to flow freely into the port, and at the roundabout five armored vehicles watched the square but no protesters could be seen.

It was the fourth day of protests in Oman, with the crowd continuing to demand jobs and political reforms. On Monday, demonstrators blocked the entrance to Sohar port, which exports 160,000 barrels per day of refined oil products.

Small protests have also been held in the capital, Muscat.

About 300 protesters staged a sit-in outside the sultanate’s consultative council Tuesday, demanding reforms and an end to corruption.

The demonstration was organized by intellectuals and non-governmental associations and protesters held placards reading “We want jobs,” “We want higher salaries” and “We want freedom of the press.”

Meanwhile, about 2,000 people gathered at a mosque to voice support for Sultan Qaboos bin Said and the government, blaming violence during this week’s demonstrations on protesters.

Rare outbreak

The unrest in Sohar, Oman’s main industrial center, was a rare outbreak of discontent in the sultanate which has been ruled by Sultan Qaboos for four decades.

On Sunday, in a bid to calm tensions, the sultan promised 50,000 jobs, unemployment benefits of 390 US dollars a month, and to consider widening the power of a quasi-parliamentary advisory council.

There were conflicting reports on the death toll from clashes in Sohar Sunday, when police opened fire on stone-throwing demonstrators after failing to disperse them with batons and tear gas.

A doctor and several nurses at a state hospital said six people died, but the health minister put the toll at one.

PJ Crowley, the US state department spokesman, said Monday: “We have been in touch with the government and encouraged restraint and to resolve differences through dialogue.”

Political parties are banned in Oman and Sultan Qaboos exercises absolute power in the country.

He reshuffled his cabinet Saturday, a week after a small protest in the capital Muscat gave the first indication that Arab discontent could reach Oman.

Oman is a non-OPEC oil exporter which pumps around 850,000 barrels per day, and has strong military and political ties to the West.

Mostly wealthy Arab countries in the region, including Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, have pledged billions of dollars in state benefits and offered modest reforms to appease their populations.

The moves follow popular unrest that toppled the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt and is threatening Muammar Gaddafi’s grip on Libya.

Published under an agreement with Al Jazeera.

All rights reserved, IPS — Inter Press Service (2011). Total or partial publication, retransmission or sale forbidden.