Two years later

February 25 marked the second anniversary of the eruption of Arab Spring protests in Dhofar, the southern region of Oman. Protests in Muscat, Sohar, and other areas of Oman started earlier, and by the end of the first quarter of 2011 almost every major town in Oman witnessed some form of demonstration or peaceful sit-in.

Compared to other Arab Spring countries, the Omani protesters had no interest in bringing down a regime. Their main concerns revolved around creating jobs, higher minimum wage, and better living conditions. Other demands included more freedom of speech, less government control over the media, political reforms and the removal of several key government officials.

Unlike other countries, authorities' initial reaction to the protests was to quietly receive the written demands, study them, and initiate immediate changes. Within weeks the cabinet of ministers was reshuffled, ministries were dissolved, several key officials were fired, 50,000 jobs were created, minimum wage increased, new legislative powers were granted to our version of parliament, and other major changes took place.

These instant reforms may not have solved the real underlying issues but they were a smart and quick solution to maintaining some form of stability within Oman as regimes collapsed around us and violent protests swept through the Arab world. The Omani protests continued for about four months.

 

Despite the quiet and peaceful nature of the majority of sit-ins, several of them ended rather violently with an army crackdown. In Dhofar the protests ended abruptly in May 2011 after the army moved in to the main sit-in area and arrested several hundred protesters over a period of two days. Some surrendered peacefully and others who clashed with army officers were subjected to tear gas and batons.

In Dhofar most of the protesters spent around nine days in prison whereas a handful of the main organisers spent over 50 days behind bars. Similar scenarios took place in other areas of Oman as well.

Looking back it really is quite remarkable to think that Oman went through a rough patch at all! Those difficult few months aren't really discussed in public anymore. Until 2011 Oman had been viewed internationally as a quiet and peaceful country. In fact, several international newspapers referred to Oman as a 'sleepy' nation.

Despite having gone back to a perceived semi-sleepy state, don't be fooled. The aftermath of the Arab Spring protests continues to affect Oman. Despite enjoying more freedom of speech after the protests, a major crackdown on bloggers, writers, and activists started last June. Charges included defamation, instigation, spreading of rumours, and lèse majesté . Many of them are currently serving one-year prison sentences, and nearly two dozen went into an organised hunger strike in prison that ended earlier this week.

Along with many other Omanis, I feel the arrests and exaggerated prison sentences may have come at a wrong time. Our old wounds have not yet healed. Furthermore, these recent events have caught the attention of major international human rights bodies.

 

In all cases, today's column isn't about the aftermath. I simply wanted to reflect on the events of 2011. It was an important time in the history of this country. Some remember it as a time of courage whereas others like to pretend it never happened. Some believe the protests were justified, and others feel Omanis were simply demanding more spoon-feeding from our paternalistic government. Some believe the excessive use of power to end the sit-ins was uncalled for, whereas others feel the protests had gone on for too long.

It was a difficult time for Oman, but nevertheless a learning experience for both authorities and citizens. The quick solutions didn't satisfy everyone. There remain concerns over succession, corruption, legislation and freedom of expression, but those discussions will take place sooner or later. Real change doesn't happen overnight.

On a final note it is worth pointing out that despite the problems, Omanis remain fiercely loyal to His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said. Even throughout the difficult months of protests, those demanding reform were very careful about criticising our beloved ruler in any way.

This key element is what distinguished Oman from other countries that experienced the Arab Spring. With that behind us, what does the future hold?

Susan Mubarak is a Salalah-based HR professional in the private sector. She is an avid reader and writer, and enjoys photography and travelling.

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