(25th of February) Ten years on: Remembering the Omani Spring

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This year, 2021, sees the tenth anniversary of the popular protests that broke out in Sohar on 25 February 2011. The demonstrations saw people killed and injured when security forces and the Omani army moved in. In this report, the Omani Centre for Human Rights sets out the timeline of events in some of the Omani cities where protests took place, looks at the demonstrators’ main demands, and assesses the legacy of the 2011 events.

17 January 2011:  The First Green March

Protesters numbering no more than a hundred gathered in the Ministries Area of Khuwair, in Muscat. Their demands focused on jobs, the cost of living and the public sector pay cap. The march lasted less than an hour and ended without any security intervention. However, protesters noticed the deployment of several suspected security personnel, who tried to trick the organisers into thinking they had infiltrated the march.

18 February 2011:  The Second Green March

This march was coordinated by means of clear invitations across social media. The organisers used local online forums like Al-Hara (“the neighbourhood”) and Sabla (a sabla is a traditional local council) to publicise calls to join the march and recruit larger numbers of protesters. The march began shortly after 3pm in the Ministries Area in Khuwair, with the participation of many intellectuals, writers and people from various walks of life. Some of their demands and chants were similar to those heard at the first march, but the organisers of the Second Green March also gathered a number of demands through social media, including – besides the economic issues – demands for political, social, educational and other reforms. More than 500 demonstrators took part in the event.

A petition setting out the demonstrators’ demands was later submitted to the Inspector-General of Police and Customs at the time, Malik al-Maamari, who forwarded it in turn to then-Sultan Qaboos bin Said through the Diwan of the Royal Court. However, the government’s response to the demands was disappointing, and did not go beyond minor economic reforms.

25 February 2011:  The Sohar demonstrations

A week after the Second Green March, demonstrations began at the Globe Roundabout in Sohar, which the government later demolished. Thousands of people took part in the angry Sohar demonstrations, which were tragically marred by a violent security and military intervention that left a number of people dead and injured. Although the government denied that as many as six people had been killed in the demonstration, many of those taking part confirmed this figure, in addition to the dozens injured. The only named casualty of the security intervention was Abdullah al-Ghamlasi, who died on 27 February 2011; Khalifa al-Alawi was martyred a few weeks later, on 1 April.

What really sparked people’s fury was the arrival on 26 February 2011 of Omani military armed personnel carriers (APCs), which attacked the Globe Roundabout and arrested some of those camped out there, while the others ran away. The following day, 27 February, when the protesters came out onto the streets and furiously demanded the release of those who had been arrested the night before, the security forces fired tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition. The clashes later intensified, and some of the demonstrators started attacking government buildings and setting fire to vehicles. The government was eventually forced to capitulate and release those who had been arrested the previous night, but not before there had been casualties, including the death of Abdullah al-Ghamlasi.

25 February 2011:  The Salalah demonstrations

These demonstrations, which later evolved into a sit-in, began outside the office of the Minister of State and Governor of Dhofar. They were peaceful in nature and saw no clashes with, or interventions by, the security forces. The reason for this may have been, above all, the regime’s memories of the armed Dhofar Rebellion, which was ultimately stamped out by means of Iranian and British military intervention that confirmed Qaboos in power in the early 1970s. The numbers demonstrating in Dhofar quickly grew to more than ten thousand, thwarting any attempt to contain the protests. The number of riot police at the time was insufficient; any intervention on their part might have been counterproductive and achieved the very opposite of what the government intended.

27 February 2011: Muscat

Refusing to accept the government’s initial, disappointing, response to their demands, and in reaction to the military and security intervention in Sohar, a number of intellectuals and writers gathered in front of the Majlis al-Shura (Consultative Council) in Muscat, in what later became known as the People’s Square sit-in. The sit-in subsequently hosted a number of consciousness-raising events and caught the attention of large numbers of the public. The main upshot of the sit-in was the submission to the sultan of the “contractual constitution” petition, in which the protesters demanded the creation of a constitution based on a social contract between government and people.

All sit-ins and protests were forcibly brought to an end following military intervention on 12 and 13 May 2011. Army APCs attacked the sit-in sites in Salalah, Muscat and Sur, and arrested everyone present who refused to leave. The last sit-in to be broken up by force was the one at the Majlis al-Shura, on 14 May. Most of those arrested during this period were subsequently released without charge, but many of those arrested at the end of February and in March and April of that year were charged and thrown in jail.

The Omani government’s response to the protests

The Omani government’s reactions, both immediately and in the longer term, can be categorised under two headings:

First, there was a desire to absorb the people’s anger. This was evident in several of the successive decrees that that were issued, starting with the sacking or reshuffling of several cabinet ministers; the creation of fifty thousand jobs (it later became clear that this was an inflated figure just to pacify public opinion and damp down people’s anger for the time being); granting the Majlis al-Shura (the lower house of the Majlis Oman, or parliament) powers that in fact proved ineffectual and went no further than a consultative role; and the setting up of an independent Consumer Protection Authority.

Sultan Qaboos fired a number of ministers whose economic and political corruption had aroused popular fury during the demonstrations, including Ali bin Majed, Ali bin Hamoud, Malik al-Maamari, Maqbool Ali Sultan and Ahmad Abdulnabi Makki. Qaboos also issued a decree making the Public Prosecution independent of the Inspector-General of Police and Customs.

Second, measures were taken to prevent any further demonstrations in opposition to the government. Laws were introduced or developed into the Omani Penal Code, such as a ban on any gathering of more than ten people; a law banning and criminalising the formation of political parties or even independent human rights associations and organisations; and a law prohibiting anyone with a criminal record from standing for election, which was seen as a way of preventing anyone who had helped to organise, or took part in, or supported the demonstrations from standing for parliament.

The government’s determination to have no more demonstrations became clear when, from May 2011 onwards, it started prosecuting everyone who had helped to organise and publicise the demonstrations. In June 2012 the government arrested most of the activists and writers, and sentenced most of those detained to between six and 18 months in prison, in what later came to be referred to as the “lèse-majesté” (insulting the sultan) and “illegal gathering” cases.

Today, Oman remains an absolute monarchy, or sultanate. Despite the expectations of many citizens and outside observers that the new sultan, Haitham bin Tariq, would act to transform Oman into a constitutional monarchy – especially after Oman signed up to human rights agreements like the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance – human rights violations are nevertheless continuing; activists are still being called in for questioning and threatened if they criticise the sultan and his royal decrees, or even certain ministries’ performance.

Worse still, there are observers inside and outside the country who describe the new sultan’s management of Oman’s domestic affairs as soft and weak, on both economic and security levels. This follows the revelation that neighbouring states’ intelligence services have repeatedly managed to penetrate deep inside the country, finding points of weakness in people’s concept of citizenship, and undermining the strength of the state. This has raised previously unasked questions about the role of the country’s security services, especially the Internal Security Service (ISS) that is always so keen to silence people and suppress activists, while proving unable to protect the country’s security effectively. This has raised further doubts about its performance and the nature of its work, and what it has been doing all these years. A number of activists are even wondering whether the ISS is really loyal to the country, given its repeated failures to unmask espionage cells, and its having to cover up these failures in a shamefaced and timid way by stirring up popular anger against the state that has penetrated its defences. Instead of announcing the fact honestly and taking a clear and patriotic position, they are turning to social media, which is no way for an independent state and a strong security service to react.

And it is this that leads activists and commentators to liken the current situation in Oman to the late 19th- to early 20th-century period known historically as the “era of weak sultans”, in the wake of Great Britain’s successful destruction and dismantling of the Omani empire, with its bloody aftermath and subsequent widespread decline. It was all sparked off in the sultans’ palaces in East Africa and Oman, with unexpected ramifications for subsequent periods of history.

As an example of how Oman has reached this stage today, some people point to the suppressed but mounting popular anger towards the new sultan, Haitham, since he is also accused of corruption, according to some foreign analysts. There are suspicions hovering over him in connection with The Wave Project (a waterfront tourism complex in Muscat) and the massive thefts it has suffered in recent years. Analysts link this with the new sultan’s failure to make any serious or radical administrative changes in the structure of the state and its security apparatus. In other words, he is continuing to let the government’s performance slip even further and faster than before under the pressure of deteriorating economic circumstances, apparently unaware of the fact that the public’s growing anger will not be assuaged by the usual security methods. The popular mood will not be pacified unless genuine, practical solutions are found to end rampant corruption at the highest levels, and to prevent the public being pushed to breaking point.

Conditions in Oman right now are like those that prevailed before the events of 2011 erupted. Social media activists think that any stepping-up of Western policies towards Arab dictatorships in general might cause the return of a sudden and prolonged Arab Spring that will erupt explosively and not be laid to rest until corruption and its causes have been torn out by the roots and corrupt politicians dealt with, this time without compromise, no matter what the cost.

Laws like the Omani Penal Code present the biggest challenge to the implementation of human rights agreements, as this law, prescribing the death penalty in many cases, criminalises such rights-related activities as peaceful assembly, establishing political parties or human rights associations, and criticising the sultan (or even foreign heads of state), and it curtails many personal and religious liberties.

Ten years on from the Omani Spring, the protesters’ demands have still not been met, and the country’s crises are getting worse. How do you think the government can be made to change the political system?