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Oman is facing a crucial turning point regarding its economy and local politics after unemployed youth led a 5-day protest across several cities in Oman. Protests broke out on May 23 in Sohar, the city where Oman’s massive 2011 protests began. The main driver remains as it was 10 years ago, the high rate of unemployment among youth. Minor clashes broke out between police and protesters in Sohar, where police used tear gas to disperse the demonstrators. While shrinking job opportunities sparked the protests, many of Oman’s youth are demanding more than just jobs: structural economic reform, social justice, and expanding powers of the elected Shura Council.
In response to the protests, Oman announced a plan to create 32,000 jobs in the public and private sectors. The initiative could provide a short-term fix to the entrenched unemployment crisis in Oman, similar to an employment plan in 2011 that convinced protesters to end demonstrations. However, the problem now goes beyond creating job opportunities.
What Omani Protesters Want
Protesters have circulated a list of demands on social media. Though it does not include the demands of all demonstrators, it first calls for the resignation of ministers and undersecretaries in government bodies that are related to the economy, labor, housing, commerce, and industry. Other demands relate to abolishing taxes and reinstating water, electricity, and fuel subsidies. Among the most popular demands are also fighting corruption, fair wealth distribution, and unbiased and equal treatment of all citizens.
Several videos have been posted of protesters talking to officials at the Sohar protest. A job seeker voiced loudly “I need a job, only a job,” emphasizing that “we don’t want charity.” The officials tried to calm down the protesters and asked them to wait and see the government plans. The protesters responded that they have already waited so long, and one said: “If you saw or knew our living conditions you wouldn’t ask us to wait.”
Hundreds of protesters in Sohar and other cities, including Salalah, Ibri, Ibra, and Bediya, said that they love their country and respect Sultan Haitham bin Tariq al-Said, but they were asserting their rights and demanding that the government listen to them and address their demands. Responding to accusations of being backed by foreign agents, the protesters insisted that they are loyal to their country as well as to their fair demands.
Omanis who did not participate in the protests reacted differently. Some were torn between waiting for the results of the government’s measures or supporting the protesters. An Omani community leader, Mohammed, said he thought that Sultan Haitham, who became the head of the state in January 2020, deserved a chance to try to solve the economy’s problems, accumulated for decades before he inherited them a year and a half ago. However, he noted that authorities cannot force the people who lack adequate living conditions and the freedom to express their suffering to remain silent for long. Mohammed participated in previous protests, such as those in 2011, when he was briefly detained. Some Omanis suggested that the protesters could express their demands without loud voices and protesting against the government’s economic plans and performance, while many others noted their full support for the protesters and their demands.
The government, for the most part, was able to de-escalate tension and avoid violence. And, despite the heavy presence of the police and other security forces, the protests remained largely peaceful. Generally, the authorities have responded quickly to protesters’ demands, including releasing arrested protests leaders, such as Abdulaziz al-Bulushi, who was also detained in 2011 for his role in the protests. Nevertheless, because of the popularity of the protests, the government will likely have to tread carefully, as ignoring protesters’ demands could lead to renewed protests.
The Search for Jobs and Justice
There are at least 65,000 unemployed Omanis. More than one-third are married. Around 65% of them have a college degree, and 27% have a high school diploma. Oman’s population is 4.6 million, 40% of whom are foreigners, and the labor market includes 1.5 million foreign workers. Protesters said that foreigners have better and more opportunities in the private sector than Omanis, even in cases in which Omanis are more skilled and have higher education. One protester said that, despite the Omanization policy setting requirements for hiring nationals, the private sector prefers foreigners over Omanis regardless of qualifications. Alawi al-Mashoor, a prominent activist, believes that is due to the sponsorship system. The sponsorship system, which he believes permits the abuse of foreign workers, also limits Omanis’ opportunities and prevents them from competing based on qualifications. Mashoor explained that employers or sponsors do not look into skills and qualifications when hiring foreign workers; they prefer foreign workers because they can force them to work long hours, while Omanis often protest against employers who abuse their rights. Mashoor said that abolishing the sponsorship system would put citizens and foreigners on equal footing when applying for a job.
The publishing of a news story on May 18 of the employment of 38,000 foreign workers in Oman’s private sector during the past year fueled the anger of Omani job seekers. Between 2020 and 2021 there were reportedly 6,700 Omanis laid off from private sector jobs. This number is based on the number of people who were enrolled to receive employment security payments. According to an Omani journalist, the true number of Omanis who lost their jobs is likely much higher, however no official data has been released. Many Omanis thought the layoffs were unjust and accused private sector companies of using the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to let the workers go. These job losses added to the 65,000 unemployed Omanis. Moreover, the government instituted compulsory retirement in 2020 of 70% of public sector employees who completed 25-30 years on the job as part of measures to ease the economic crisis.
Many Omanis believe that the royal orders to speed up the employment of 32,000 job seekers will temporarily calm the crisis as in 2011. However, a permanent solution will require more comprehensive reform of the economic system addressing government transparency, corruption, and social justice.
An Omani economic expert noted the complexity of the employment issue in Oman. He indicated Oman needs “an outlook and insight,” examining many intertwined national policies, such as development plans, diversification, structural reform, human resources, and social security policies. He stressed the need for a complete database of national human resources in the labor force or expected to enter the job market in the next five years. He additionally highlighted the importance of understanding where there are economic opportunities and resources to create jobs.
To address the unemployment issue, the Omani government will need to issue regulations and work closely with private sector companies. This includes laws encouraging employers to hire Omanis and placing conditions on hiring foreigners, according to the economic expert. An informed source said that the government is working on such plans, however, it is slow and hasn’t informed the public about progress, stressing that “this is an opportunity for the government to show its plan to recover the economy and respond quickly to people’s demands.”
Omanis were optimistic that the new sultan would address the economic crisis and improve living conditions. Many protesters felt they had been patient, especially with the severe conditions due to the coronavirus. Addressing protesters’ demands will require the Omani government to look seriously into reforming the economic system and regulate the relationship between government officials and businesses. Enforcing accountability, monitoring misconduct and conflicts of interest, fighting corruption at all levels, and granting the Shura Council powers to monitor and hold officials accountable are steps toward addressing persistent unemployment and regaining trust in the government’s performance.
is an Omani scholar and journalist. She is the acting editor in chief of Carnegie Endowment’s publication Sada Journal.
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