On May 23rd, protests sparked across major urban areas in Oman to express discontent with the current unemployment crisis. Predominantly peaceful demonstrators—made up of unemployed youth—were met with police violence, tear gas, and unlawful arrests in Sohar. Parallel to these developments, protests also erupted in Dhofar and Salalah. According to local civil rights groups, police arrested civilians, confiscated their phones and sent them to unknown detention centers. Further, the government asked national media outlets to withhold information about the protests and government crackdown but international media outlets reported on the demonstrations anyway.
By Tuesday, Sohar police halted their crackdown and the national media began reporting on the protests. Throughout the demonstrations, young Omani demonstrators protested high unemployment and advocated for government economic intervention. Crucially, the Omani protestors used social media, including Twitter, to organize and rally for economic reform instead of complete regime change. In response to discontent, Sultan Haitham announced on May 25th that the government would open 2,000 temporary full-time government jobs, generate part-time working opportunities, and fund 15,000 jobs in the private sector for the near future.
The government did not comment on the demonstrations but Omani state media declared that tackling unemployment was “among the most important priorities” for the Sultan. Moreover, the military expanded recruitment over the week to alleviate unemployment. After reports that Omani police violated demonstrators’ civil liberties, the Gulf Center for Human Rights and the Omani Association for Human Rights announced that “the Omani government should immediately end the policy of silencing and restricting public freedoms, including freedom of peaceful protest and freedom of the press”.
Foreign policy experts attribute the demonstrations as a natural byproduct of Oman’s current economic fluctuations. Sultan Haitham inherited a government in January 2020 marred with structural and financial issues which were intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic. State debt rose from 60% to 81% in 2019; Oman’s GDP contracted by 6.4% in 2020. Despite previous financial reforms, Oman’s finances remain undiversified and reliant on oil.
In response, the international community should lobby the Omani government to release detained protestors. Further, the United Kingdom should temporarily suspend arms sales to the Sultan. Photos posted online demonstrated that police in Oman used tear gas created by PW Defence, a company based in Britain. The United Kingdom and Oman’s Sultan have a close diplomatic and trade relationship; since 2015, the United Kingdom has sold £1.6 billion worth of weapons to Oman. Consequently, Britain ought to cut arms deals with Oman on the condition that the Sultan releases detained protestors.
Although the job program created by the Sultan will probably alleviate the pressure created by unemployment, the proposed policy doesn’t address the root of Oman’s economic instability. During the twenty-first century, high unemployment and economic discontent have sparked demonstrations in Oman multiple times, most noticeably during the 2011 Arab Spring revolts. Thus, these recent protests symbolize a long-term trend of financial issues, state unaccountability to the people and inadequate welfare.
Recently, the state introduced the value-added tax and other austerity measures to help maintain the Sultan’s financial stability in the wake of low international oil prices. In April 2020, the Sultan ordered domestic companies to speed up the process of replacing foreign staff with Omani nationals because approximately 40% of the population are not Omani citizens. Similar to policies introduced during the 2010s, these reforms haven’t addressed Oman’s core economic issue: reliance on oil and gas. To reverse this trend, the government must diversify its economy away from oil and should open the political sphere to encourage governmental accountability in the long run. Importantly, this shift would help advance the socio-economic interests of Omani nationals and help improve humanitarian conditions.
Within a broader context, these protests have not altered international oil prices and foreign investment in Oman. Yet, the protests signify Oman’s economic mismanagement. If the Omani government doesn’t encourage substantial reform, the country’s residents will likely remain susceptible to the shocks of the international oil market. Further, this recent movement is unlikely to be the last call for economic reforms because of long-term economic discontent. However, the Sultan is likely to stay in power for the near future since these protests and previous demonstrations have called for socioeconomic reforms rather than regime change. Hence, Oman likely will remain oil-dependent and politically closed for the near future while introducing economic reforms when necessary to appease the public.