Protests over struggling economy and unemployment in Oman enter fourth day

The police crackdown on protesters using British-manufactured tear gas has led a UK-based campaign group to demand the review of sale of arms and riot/crowd control equipment to the Gulf state by the British government

May 27, 2021 by Peoples Dispatch
Oman protest
A sit-in protest demonstration in Sohar, Oman. (Photo: Middle East Online)

Thousands of young Omani citizens staged protests for the fourth consecutive day against declining economic conditions, mass layoffs and rising unemployment in the country on Wednesday, May 26. The protests, which began on Sunday, have forced the ruler of Oman, Sultan Haitham, to direct the government to expedite the process of creating 32,000 full and part-time government jobs and provide government subsidies for new employees.

Protests on Wednesday were reported from several cities and towns, including Sohar, Nizwa, Ibri, Rustaq, Suwayq, al-Khaburah, Salalah and Sur. Though largely peaceful, they were held in the presence of military riot police and armored vehicles. In Sohar, the police fired tear gas canisters at a sit-in protest under one of the city’s main bridges. The sit-in protest reportedly caused major traffic disruptions, which led the police to disperse them. Many protesters were also arrested in Sohar and Salalah in the first three days. While some were later released, others still remain in custody. Details of the arrests have not been made public by the police. Videos of the police crackdown, including those of arrests being made, were circulated on social media. The following day, the police, in complete contrast, were seen talking to the protesters and even offering them water.

Human rights groups like the Gulf Center for Human Rights and Omani Association for Human Rights revealed that the police had confiscated the phones of several of the detained protesters and that the news media in Oman was warned by authorities not to cover the demonstrations. In a statement calling on the government to respect civilian and human rights, the groups said, “The Omani government should immediately end the policy of silencing and restricting public freedoms, including freedom of peaceful protest and freedom of the press.”

The tiny Gulf state of Oman has been mired in economic problems, worsened by the falling international oil prices, economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, and national debt which in 2020 was estimated to be around 127% of the GDP. Omani citizens have also suffered under austerity measures, such as the removal of subsidies on electricity and water, introduced by the Sultan to balance the national budget and reduce the deficit. Last month, the Sultan also introduced a new Value Added Tax (VAT) in order to increase government revenue. He also ordered companies in Oman including the public sector to hire Omani nationals to replace foreign workers.

In the UK, which is among Oman’s closest western allies and arms suppliers, the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) urged the British government to investigate the use of UK-manufactured tear gas on unarmed peaceful protesters by the Omani security forces. This was after an investigative journalist released photos identifying the tear gas canisters used by the Omani police as ones being manufactured near Derby, England, by the British company PW Defence Ltd. 

CAAT spokesperson Andrew Smith said in a statement, “Oman is one of the world’s largest buyers of UK arms, and it was only a matter of time before those arms were turned against civilians. The Omani regime has avoided a lot of the international scrutiny it deserves, but the last few days have exposed the repression and abuse that it uses to entrench its authoritarian rule. For decades now it has been able to rely on the uncritical political and military support of arms-dealing governments like the UK who have been happy to ignore its appalling human rights record while pushing arms sales. Unfortunately, this means that the Omani authorities have a big arsenal of weapons at their disposal.”