Thursday, March 3, 2011

Growing Unrest in Oman

Rival Rallies Demand Reforms, Back Sultan in Oman

Wednesday March 2, 2011

MUSCAT - Rival groups demonstrated in the Omani capital Muscat Wednesday, with protesters demanding jobs and political reforms for a fifth successive day and government supporters taking part in a long parade of cars.

Unrest broke out this week in Sohar, Oman's main industrial center in a rare sign of discontent in the usually tranquil Gulf state, ruled by Sultan Qaboos bin Said for four decades, after a wave of pro-democracy protests across the Arab world.

Hundreds of cars packed streets in an area of the capital housing government ministries Wednesday, with drivers honking horns and passengers holding up national flags and pictures of Sultan Qaboos.

"We are happy that Sultan Qaboos has answered our requests for reforms and I am sure more reforms will come in the next few days," said Yaqub Bilal, a resident of Muscat taking part in the pro-government parade.

The sultan tried to ease tension Sunday by promising 50,000 jobs, unemployment benefits of $390 a month and to study widening the power the quasi-parliamentary Shura Council.

Earlier Wednesday, about 150 people gathered in a silent protest outside the building of the Shura Council, an elected advisory body which demonstrators want transformed into a full-fledged parliament.

They carried placards reading "we want jobs" and "we want freedom of the press."

"Though we see some of our requests addressed, we still need reforms such as the removal of long-serving ministers and the Shura Council to have legislative powers," said Rashid al-Sakhri, an oil engineer.

As many as six people were killed in Sohar Sunday when police opened fire on stone-throwing demonstrators after failing to scatter them with batons and tear gas.

The U.S. State Department has said that Washington was encouraging restraint and dialogue in Oman, strategically located across the Gulf of Oman from U.S. adversary Iran.

Oman has strong military and political ties with the United States and is a small non-OPEC oil exporter.

Sultan Qaboos, who exercises absolute power in a country where political parties are banned, gave more independence to the public prosecutor Tuesday and ordered the creation of an independent consumer protection watchdog to monitor prices.

These were the latest in a series of modest steps after the sultan reshuffled his cabinet Saturday, a week after a small protest in Muscat gave the first hint that Arab discontent could reach the sultanate.

Mostly wealthy Gulf Arab countries have pledged billions of dollars in state benefits and some offered modest reforms to appease their populations influenced by popular unrest that has toppled the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt and is threatening Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's hold on power.

Reporting by Saleh Al-Shaibany; writing by Firouz Sedarat; editing by Andrew Dobbie.

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