|Sultan Qaboos bin Said has announced a series of social reforms, as protesters demand democracy [GALLO/GETTY]|
A raft of minor reforms have been floated “in the public’s interest” by the sultan of Oman, as protesters stopped traffic and broke street lights in the country’s largest industrial city.
A crowd of 500 protesters, demanding democracy and jobs, gathered on Saturday outside a shopping mall in the city of Sohar, barricading vehicles and shoppers.
“It has been going on for hours now,’ said resident Mohammed Sumri.
“They are at the Globe roundabout blocking traffic.”
Though protests are rare in the country on the south-eastern tip of the Arabian peninsula, the police did not intervene, witnesses said.
Oman’s ruler, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, issued a decree announcing a raise in stipends for university students – which will reportedly be boosted by between US$65 and US$234 a month – in order to “achieve further development and provide a decent living”, said the state-run Oman News Agency.
A cabinet reshuffle has also seen the replacement of six ministers – though long-serving ministers were not affected.
In addition, Sultan Qaboos announced the creation of a consumer protection bureau and said he was looking into opening cooperatives in the 2.8 million-strong country – an absolute monarchy where political parties are banned.
“We want democracy,” shouted crowds in Sohar. “We want the Shura council to have legislative powers. We want corrupt ministers to go – we want jobs,” they chanted.
The 84-member Shura council is elected by voters across 61 districts, but works in a purely advisory capacity and has no legislative powers.
The cabinet reshuffle saw Mohammed bin Nasser al-Khasibi named commerce and industry minister, Hamoud bin Faisal al-Bousaidi as civil service minister and Madiha bint Ahmed bin Nasser as education minister.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdullah al-Harthy, the outgoing civil service minister, was appointed to head the environment ministry, while Maqboul bin Ali bin Sultan will be the new transport minister and Mohsen bin Mohammed al-Sheikh becomes tourism minister.
Earlier this month, the sultanate increased the minimum salaries of private sector workers by 43 per cent – to US$520 a month, as popular uprisings which toppled autocratic leaders in Tunisia and Egypt spread to Libya, Yemen and Bahrain – one of Oman’s partners in the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council.