Oil wealth likely to keep Gulf calm

Despite a rare protest in Oman and cash and food being doled out in Kuwait, experts say the region will remain quiet.

    The Saudi government welcomed ousted Ben Ali, ushering him to a heavily guarded palace in Jeddah [Reuters]

    About 2,000 Omanis have staged a rare protest demanding higher wages and salaries and a curb to rising prices and the high cost of living, the Associated Press news agency said. Other media outlets said the gathering was much smaller.

    The demonstration on Monday, a rarity in the usually calm sultanate, was called for by the civil society groups and publicised on websites.

    Protesters gathered in the district housing most government ministries under close watch by police. The demonstration ended peacefully.

    One demonstrator said the march was a request to Sultan Qaboos to personally intervene against the greed of the merchants and raise government employees salaries including those in the police and the army.

    Banners held by the demonstrators read "no to high prices" and "no to the merchant greed".

    Free food and cash

    Meanwhile, the ruler of Kuwait announced on Monday the distribution of $4bn and free food for 14 months to all citizens.

    Each of the 1.12 million native citizens will get 1,000 dinars ($3,572) in cash as well as free essential food items until March 31, 2012, Kuwait's emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah was reported to have said.

    The Gulf state, whose financial assets top $300bn, will next month mark the 50th anniversary of independence, 20th anniversary of liberation from Iraqi occupation and the fifth anniversary of the emir's ascendance to power.

    The 2.4 million foreign residents of Kuwait, mainly workers from south Asia, are excluded from the grant and the free food.

    Golden bargain

    Experts say that the oil wealth of Saudi Arabia and its neighbours could prevent any poverty-driven unrest, similar to that which ousted Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, from spreading to the Gulf.

    They say that Gulf Arab rulers have struck a golden bargain with their people to trade political quiescence for relative affluence.

    "I know there is a lot of talk about the ripple effect. I think the epicentre is still very much Tunisia and in the immediate region in north Africa I would say," Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Centre, said.

    "With regard to the Gulf leaderships directly, to be fair they are focused on a vision ... which is about developing their societies," he added.

    The Gulf Arab states' massive oil wealth fuelled a development boom that lifted much of the region into prosperity even as other Arab countries struggle to raise living standards.

    "I think the Gulf states are a little bit more secure than some of the other states that have been mentioned such as Egypt and Jordan and Algeria. So I don't see it spreading to here," Theodore Karasik, a Dubai-based security analyst, said.

    Saudi Arabia was widely criticised for inviting Ben Ali and his family after France, among other places, refused to host him.

    But some say the decision to host a deposed Arab ruler in the shape of Ben Ali has been more sensitive, as it highlights the lack of democracy in the kingdom itself. Riyadh is keen to avoid any hint of political parallels with Tunisia.

    Prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who is close to key Saudi princes, said: "I myself was not happy about it and I'm sure most Saudis are not happy about it.

    "We would not like our country to be the destination for dictators but again we are trapped by traditions."

    SOURCE: Agencies


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