Muscat, Oman – When Ahmed al-Rasbi called Oman’s consumer protection agency to complain about defects in his new washing machine, he did not expect a swift response. It was during the holy month of Ramadan, when government work often slows to a trickle. So when Rasbi heard back from the consumer protection agency that same day, he was shocked.
“They went to the shop in the matter of one hour and called me from the shop itself,” said Rasbi, a 35-year-old engineer from Oman’s al-Sharqiyah region. Prompted by the government visit, the store where Rasbi had bought his washing machine gave him a full refund.
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In a country where citizens are quick to grumble about inefficient bureaucracy, stories of decisive action by Oman’s Public Authority for Consumer Protection (PACP) are common.
“They are different,” Rasbi said. “People trust them.”
Oman created the PACP in 2011, during the Arab Spring protests that rocked the region, charging it with monitoring prices, addressing consumer complaints and combating fraud and monopolies.
The move, however, was barely noticed amid the raft of changes made by the government to ease the unrest. Four years later, the watchdog group has earned Omanis’ praise and respect, and is considered to be one of the Arab Spring’s most tangible legacies in the country.
The authority’s regulations have frustrated Oman’s traders and retailers, who must request permission to increase prices. At the same time, it is beloved by ordinary Omanis, who see it as a champion of the underdog.
“The Omani consumer has become the real partner to the authority,” PACP Chairman Said al-Kaabi told Al Jazeera.
Although the future of its price regulation powers is unclear, activists say the episode showed how the Arab Spring has changed Oman.
“Before, when the [government] decision comes, that’s it – whether you like it or you don’t,” said Habiba al-Hinai, an Omani activist who heads a volunteer group called We Are All Consumers. “But now at least the people have a little bit of power, a little bit of influence over the decision.”
Like most countries in the Middle East, in 2011 the Gulf sultanate witnessed a wave of protests demanding reforms. Omanis stopped short of calling for the downfall of the regime. Sultan Qaboos, 74, is overwhelmingly popular. Instead, they complained about corruption, unemployment, and the cost of living.
“When we talk about political rights or human rights, [Omanis] don’t want to be involved – only a small number,” Hinai said. “But when something has to do with their pockets and their stomachs, they will all [join in].”
don’t want to be involved – only a small number. But when something has to do with their pockets and their stomachs, they will all [join in].”]
At its launch, the PACP had just 58 employees. Today, more than 900 employees work in its 15 branches across Oman. Last year, the authority handled more than 29,000 complaints, reports and violations, leading to fines of more than 330,000 Omani rials ($857,000).
In one case that electrified public opinion, a prominent local company – which was not named in accordance with local laws – was accused of selling fake spare parts for MAN trucks. The PACP confiscated more than 36,000 spare parts in a raid in 2013.
Last month, Oman’s Supreme Court confirmed the conviction of eight defendants in the case, sentencing some to a year in jail and deporting the non-Omanis among them.
Muscat-based newspaper al-Zamn euphorically declared that the case proved that “no one is bigger than the law”.
“I think [the authority’s] activities are clear inside the sultanate to protect the consumer and organise business,” Ahmed al-Dheeb, undersecretary of the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, told Al Jazeera.
“This is a regulatory process for the market, and we wish them luck.”
Unsurprisingly, the PACP has irked businessmen. A 2011 study by the Oman Chamber of Commerce and Industry found that price control “undermines the principles of a free economy and disrupts overall economic activity”, according to the official Oman News Agency.
But in June 2014, when Oman’s Council of Ministers limited the list of goods subjected to the PACP’s price control to fewer than 30 basic items such as rice, lentils and chickpeas, the decision caused a backlash.
The royal order delayed the decision’s implementation until the enactment of a consumer protection law and an antitrust law. Soon after, Qaboos – who has no heir and has not named a successor – travelled to Germany to receive medical treatment. He has yet to return. The consumer protection and antitrust laws were issued in November, but for now, the PACP’s powers remain the same.
Its future, though, is unclear.
“During the coming stage, the government will monitor the application of the two laws on the ground, and from there will take the appropriate procedures in reconsidering the previous decision,” the PACP said in an emailed statement to Al Jazeera.
Like many Omanis, Sami al-Abri, a 28-year-old engineer, is waiting to find out what will happen.
“[The PACP] proved that they are willing to do something,” he said. “And maybe with limited laws and regulations. But they did as much as they can.”