Will Sinbad go on strike?

Industrial action in Sohar as Qaboos brings up the rear

The recent protests in Sohar and now Muscat in Oman are rare developments in this generally peaceful Gulf kingdom. Sultan Qaboos is currently the second-longest serving ruler in the Arab world, having ousted his unpopular father in a 1970 palace coup. Ushering in a new era of oil-fuelled development and social welfare programs he oversaw the defeat of the communist insurgency in the south, and dramatic improvements in living conditions without the usual police state atmosphere. However job creation and dwindling oil reserves just aren’t keeping pace with Oman’s taxing annual (just under 2%) population growth.

Why did things begin in Sohar, rather than the capital Muscat, or traditional sites of rebellion like Salalah and Nizwa? The answer is that it is the base of Oman’s labor movement, which was legalized in 2006 in coordination with the UAE. Sinbad’s reputed hometown is the new, mostly state-owned industrial heartand, the site of Oman’s other oil refinery, a $12 billion dollar deep-water port project, and multi-billion dollar steel and aluminum plants. Oman has a significantly smaller percentage of expatriate blue-collar workers in the labor-force than the Emirates, but it is still large, and a target of frustrations over unemployment. The hypermarket attacked in Soharby protesters was Indian owned, like the recently bought-out steel plant, and a number of other investments.

Sultan Qaboos retains considerable public goodwill, even with the generally young protesters. Yet protesters object to unelected cabinet ministers who have remained in their posts for years, and against whom increasingly serious charges of corruption have been laid. Failure to make governance more transparent, or to speed up ‘Omanization’ of jobs is likely to lead to more industrial action, and the derailing of the very economic initiatives meant to generate well paid, economically sustainable work. While the Sultan can and probably will make such changes, the ambiguous future of Oman’s political system after the death of the heirless Qaboos (the target of a major Emiratispy ring) remains as open and high-stakes as ever.

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