Lulu supermarket set ablaze by Oman protesters

Omanis shout 'We want higher salaries' as police station, government ministry and a supermarket are damaged by flames in crowds' response to ruler's latest concessions.

SOHAR // Demonstrators set a Lulu supermarket ablaze and rallied at two places in this Omani seaside town yesterday in a third consecutive day of clashes.

About 1,000 protesters blocked the entrances to the Sohar Industrial Area, home to the sultanate's major industries, demanding jobs, witnesses said.

Meanwhile, security forces sealed off main roads to Sohar in an attempt to isolate the protesters and keep crowds from swelling.

Sohar is about 250km north of Muscat, where industries including Sohar Refinery, Oman Methanol Company, Oman Polypropylene Plant and the Sohar Aluminium Smelter are located.

The protesters in Sohar, mostly young people between 18 and 35 years of age, blocked the roads to the industrial area with vehicles stolen from local companies.

The government announced on Sunday that it planned to grant more generous employment benefits, but that was not enough for Mohamed Allawi, 24, one of the demonstrators.

"Our protest here is a clear message that we want jobs to be reserved for Sohar people in this industrial area," he said.

"Most of the jobs here go to foreigners, Asians and Europeans. When we asked for work, we are told 'no vacancy'."

On Sunday, Sultan Qaboos reshuffled the government, but the changes only sparked anger in Sohar. Many were disappointed that long-serving ministers still remained in the cabinet.

Protesters burnt a government ministry office and a police station. After tear gas failed to contain them, police fired rubber bullets into the crowd and killed two demonstrators.

The same evening, Sultan Qaboos issued a decree to grant 150 rials a month (Dh1,431) to all jobless citizens in a move to appease protesters. The government did not say how many jobless people are registered in Oman, but analysts said they number in the thousands.

"The fair estimate will be about 15,000 jobless at the moment," said Rashid Falahy, a recruitment consultant based in Muscat.

In a separate protest in Sohar, about 20km from the industrial area roundabout, demonstrators burnt a shopping mall near the Globe roundabout; the mall was later looted.

Protesters at the roundabout, numbering about 300, chanted "we want higher salaries", "jobs for all", and "no corruption".

But Salim Khalfan, a 29-year-old Sohar resident who works in a shopping mall, also wanted the government to provide free housing for low-paid workers.

"At a minimum salary of 200 rials, that's not enough to pay rent," Mr Khalfan said.

There were also smaller protests in Shinas, which is about 70km north of Sohar.

In Muscat, about 250 protesters gathered in front of the Shura Council's headquarters demanding political reform.

"We want the Shura to convey our message to His Majesty to change the constitution and to have an elected government. We also want the police not repeat the Sunday violence. We also urged protesters not to damage people's property," said Dr Zakariya al Mharmi, a medical practitioner at the Sultan Qaboos Hospital.

The 83-member Shura Council is an elected body with no legislative powers, but advises the government.

The Oman News Agency reported that the Sultan spoke to Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah by telephone late on Sunday.

The Saudi ruler is facing growing calls for reform and groups are calling for rallies in that country for March 11.

A statement by Oman's ruling council said peaceful demonstrations are within the "legal rights of citizens", but strongly denounced the "sabotage" against public and private property.

In recent decades, Oman has aggressively expanded its economic base with tourism, oil and trade while quietly building military ties with Washington.

The US military presence is far less overt than in other places in the Gulf, such as the US Navy's 5th Fleet in Bahrain and major bases in Kuwait.

However, Oman has allowed American forces to use air bases for refuelling, logistics and storage.

In 2002, the then US vice president, Dick Cheney, toured US installations at Oman's Masirah Island Air Base.

At the same time, Oman has boosted its military cooperation with Iran. In early February, Iran and Oman conducted joint naval manoeuvres.

* With additional reporting by the Associated Press.