How Uprisings in a Tiny Persian Gulf Country Could Send Oil to $150 in a Matter of Days
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Picture a feudal, or neo-medieval, paradise, the former home of legendary Sindbad the Sailor, absolutely ruled by an unmarried, slim, lute-playing septuagenarian who prefers to live alone in his palace; paradigm of discretion Sultan Qabus bin Sa'id. That, in a nutshell, is Oman.
Oman practices Ibadi Islam - neither Sunni nor Shi'ite - also found in selected latitudes in northern and eastern Africa. This couldn't be further apart from Wahhabism, or al-Qaeda style jihadi fanaticism. In Omani terms, Ibadi Islam involves finding the right mix between tribal custom and the state apparatus (Qabus is very fond of consultations with tribal leaders).
Washington - and London - absolutely love Qabus; the graduate of the Sandhurst military academy in Britain is a lover of Mozart and Chopin, and his strategic acumen is compared to Singapore's founding father Lee Kwan Yew. (When I went to Oman I actually felt I was in an Arabian Singapore. It helped that I had lived in Singapore. Everything in Oman is too neat - and too Disneyland-perfect, in a Singaporean Stepford Wives way.)
American love is helped by the sultan having given a big hand to George H W Bush during the first Gulf war in 1991 against Iraq's Saddam Hussein, and extending the favor to George W Bush, allowing for 20,000 US troops to hang out in Oman before the invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq. To top it off, the deepest stretch of the exceedingly strategic Strait of Hormuz - essential for the navigation of supertankers in the Persian Gulf - lies in Omani territory.
Sorry to intrude on your idyll
Qabus, in power since 1970, may still not be an object of revulsion in his Gulf of Oman paradise. But his - and Oman's elites - time may be running out under the relentless great 2011 Arab revolt clock.
In The Economist's shoe-thrower index, Oman is in no less than sixth place, right behind Hosni Mubarak-deposed Egypt and way ahead of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali-deposed Tunisia and Khalifa-in-peril Bahrain. Half the population of less than three million is less than 21 years old. Unemployment is rife - especially among the youth carrying a useless diploma. Of a total of up to 40,000 high school graduates a year, only a few find a job.
This could not but spell major trouble. Bloggers and tweeters from Oman stress there have been demonstrations in Sur and the crucially strategic ports of Salalah (in the south, near Yemen) and Sohar (where the police used live ammunition, killing a 15-year-old boy; the Omani police - as well as the Mukhabarat - is trained in Jordan). No less than 3,000 protesters were fought with tear gas. The road from Sohar to al-Ayn - across the border in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) - was shut down.
The protesters are basically complaining about miserable wages, compared to relentless, rising inflation; and that most jobs go to foreigners (employed by foreign corporations) or to Omanis from the capital Muscat.
Peaceful protesters say they won't relent until they get better pay. The sultan has preemptively raised the national minimum wage from US$316 a month to $520; protesters want "not less than $1,300". And more: better pensions; free further education for all Omanis; and even the resignation of the government. During the weekend, the sultan also reshuffled his cabinet and the government announced 50,000 more jobs, plus unemployment benefits. The protesters' reaction: "Mere words".
What's also crucial is that none of this is being fully reported in the Gulf. Al-Jazeera is eerily quiet. Al-Arabiyya - a House of Saud mouthpiece - is also very quiet. Not to mention broadcasters in Oman itself. Al-Jazeera has been heavily criticized in many quarters for weeks on its sloppy coverage of Bahrain - compared to a 24/7 blitzkrieg when it comes to Egypt or Libya. This has raised ample suspicion that for the emir of Qatar, there's "fight for democracy" (in northern Africa) and "fight for democracy" (in the Gulf).