A calm Arab summer follows Oman's Arab spring

Oman, perhaps more than any other Arab Spring country, has transitioned back to calm following a combination of promised reforms. Elizabeth Dickinson reports from Muscat

Daily bustle goes on in and around the historic Mutrah Souk in downtown Muscat, the capital of Oman.
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MUSCAT // Khattab shakes his head when he recalls the Arab Spring-inspired protests that first dotted Oman in January 2011.
"I was with them at the beginning," the middle-aged father said, recounting his support for the young men and women who gathered by the thousands in cities and towns, from Salalah to Sur and Sohar to Muscat.
Khattab, an IT manager at a government ministry, identified with their calls for more jobs, more transparency, and more input into government.
But now, like many Omanis, Khattab decided that he "just wanted peace again".
A combination of promised reforms, increases in welfare spending over the past two years, plus a string of arrests at home and chaos elsewhere in the region convinced many Omanis to push for change more quietly.
"Looking around at the rest of the region, the danger to us is very real. And the Sultan changed many things," he said.
The result is that Oman, perhaps more than any other Arab Spring country, has transitioned back to calm.
"We're now moving through a controlled transition, one that wouldn't have happened if not for the Arab Spring, which pushed the government to be more accountable," said Ra'id Al Jamali, an Omani commentator.
But even that type of process comes at a price. Many civil society groups are laying low while more than 40 activists and protesters are in jail for charges such as insulting the ruler. Seventeen jailed Omani cyber activists, for example, have begun a hunger strike in protest against delays in their appeals, local media reported yesterday.
The transition is most visible in Oman's promise to help ease the burden of a rising cost of living. On Saturday, the Shura Council approved a 60 per cent increase in the minimum private sector wage for Omanis, to 325 rials per month (Dh 3,100).
The government is also investing directly in social spending, such as education, social security, and health care. Its 12.9-billion rial (Dh 123.bn) 2013 budget is the largest ever - by a margin of 29 per cent.
Oman will spend about 45 per cent more on housing this year, which includes building 4,000 new units for lower-income families. Electricity and food are heavily subsidised and, last year, the country raised the unemployment grant to 150 rials per month (Dh1,431).
But most striking of all is the 50 per cent of the budget that is spent on maintaining government ministries, which have absorbed 36,000 new Omani workers into their ranks since 2011. Salaries and pensions have simultaneously expanded, and at least 20,000 new government jobs are promised again this year.
The lure of winning one of those government jobs has been enough to assuage some would-be protesters. One of the most persistent myths surrounding the 2011 protests is a story of a group of demonstrators who were rounded up by security forces and taken directly to an office, where they were hired for government jobs.
For now, Oman can afford the boost in spending. The country boasts 5.5 billion barrels in proven oil reserves and is the second-largest exporter of natural gas in the Gulf.
But the spending cannot increase much further without government budgets slipping deficits. Oman's break-even price for oil this year is now roughly double what it was in 2011, at US$104 (Dh 382) per barrel.
Calls for political reform have been met more slowly but, here too, there has been change. Oman held its first municipal elections in January, following a vote in October 2011 for a new lower assembly, the Majlis Shura, with moderately expanded powers to question ministers and suggest policies. Three activists who had been involved in the protests were elected to the advisory body.
Debate over the 2013 budget was demonstrative of the new dynamic in the Majlis. For the first time, members saw detailed accounts of revenue and expenditure, and demanded more evidence from the ministries explaining how the money would be spent.
Ali Al Zuwaidi, an online administrator who was arrested for posts about government corruption in a high profile case in 2010, warns that although Omanis concerns have been allayed by reforms, fear of the state has also played a role in the country's return to calm.
"People are not willing to go to jail," said Mr Zuwaidi, who has since been reinstated in his job with the civil aviation department. "They think, why should I speak out when I am living a good life?"
Community groups and watchdog organisations have also tempered their government criticism.
"Over the last two years, the number of civil society institutions has quadrupled, but their effect has actually declined. It's been a step back," said Khalid Al Haribi, an Omani commentator. "These groups are afraid of the consequences of presenting an alternative viewpoint."
There is another kind of fear permeating conversations here too: concern about being dragged into a region wracked by turmoil. The examples of Bahrain and Syria loom large over Oman, whose particular brand of Ibadi Islam has sheltered the country from waves of sectarian tension.
"Many people are trying to use religion to cause trouble, but the protests were about jobs, not politics, and, to me, political Islam is very dangerous," said Khattab.
Still, many here worry that the changes since 2011 have been largely aesthetic.
Some Omanis in Muscat say they had hoped to watch the Majlis budget debate, for example, but it was held behind closed doors. Likewise, municipal elections have brought new local leaders into office for the first time, but it is not yet clear what will be their function.
"In order for change to work, you need it to be legitimate and credible. Everything that the government has done is legitimate. The leadership listened to the voice of the people and responded," said Mr Haribi.
"But now the issue is credibility. What's dangerous is if the changes - such as the municipal elections - are not followed by real powers."
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