The recent protests in the Sultanate of Oman reveal the cumulative failures of the state’s policies when it comes to resolving the national unemployment problem, which has gotten worse over the past year. Oman has continued to face other economic challenges as well. Unless the sultanate can pursue a long-term strategy to resolve all these issues, more crises are likely in the future.
On May 23, a group of Omani youths demonstrated in front of the Labor Directorate building in the city of Suhar, 200 kilometers northwest of the Omani capital Muscat, demanding that the government provide jobs. These protests then spread to other areas, notably Ibri, Rustaq, Sur, Nizwa, and Salalah. Hundreds of young people demanded more job opportunities as well as the abolition of the value-added tax, improvement in the conditions of pensioners, and the raising of salaries, as well as other measures that could improve the living conditions of laborers.
These protests were reminiscent of the protests of 2011, which had also begun in Suhar and in which popular displeasure had been relayed by social media platforms. The demands at the time were also that the authorities address unemployment. While the government had introduced some reforms, the impact was limited because of other problems, such as corruption, a bloated bureaucracy, and poor governmental performance. Protests also took place in 2018 and 2019, which were accompanied by strikes nationally.
According to the 2020 Yearbook of Statistics, the total number of workers in the sultanate is 2.2 million, 78.4 percent of them non-Omanis. According to the Labor Ministry, the number of Omani jobseekers registered with the ministry is approximately 65,000, out of a local workforce of 475,000. The situation has been made worse by significant layoffs due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Some have attributed the problem to the absence of laws safeguarding workers’ rights. Moreover, the Omani government’s policy of replacing foreign workers with Omanis has been unsuccessful. A problem the government has faced is that most local job-seekers have qualifications inconsistent with the needs of the labor market.
Other major difficulties include chronic budget deficits, made worse by the economic downturn due to Covid-19 and lower global oil prices. The budget deficit for 2021 is expected to be equivalent to $5.72 billion. This situation has obliged the government to introduce austerity measures and, in May 2021, introduce a value-added tax for the first time, as well as adopt other reforms aimed at guaranteeing the sultanate’s financial sustainability. Such problems, along with the absence of a strong private sector to invest in job creation, have only exacerbated unemployment levels.
The Omani government dealt with the protests much as it had previously, in two contrasting ways. First, the authorities adopted a softer approach, using official media platforms to express their understanding of the protestors’ demands. Omani government newspapers covered news of the protests. Care was taken to describe what was happening as the problem of “job seekers,” without mentioning some of the other demands of the protestors, such as fighting corruption and resolving the country’s housing problem. Government officials were also taken to places of protest to hear the protestors’ demands and issue promises to address them. Most importantly, on the third day of the protests, Sultan Haitham bin Tariq ordered the creation of up to 32,000 full-time or part-time government jobs. Also included was a government subsidy for those who joined the workforce for the first time.
The second component of the Omani government’s response was somewhat harsher, when it resorted to security measures. According to reports from Suhar and other cities, there were clashes between demonstrators and police, who fired tear gas at protestors and made arrests. However, most of those arrested were released after campaigns in social media demanding their release.
The protests may well represent the major challenge that Sultan Haitham has faced since taking office in January 2020. They also seem to be a serious test of Oman Vision 2040, the country’s development plan for the coming decades that aims to create sustainable solutions for the country’s economic challenges, while expanding the number of private-sector jobs. Discussion of the plan was initiated in 2013 during the reign of Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said, who appointed Haitham, his cousin and eventual successor, to manage it.
The recent protests brought home several lessons to the Omani government. First, that quick fixes for increasing employment no longer work. What is needed are more fundamental, long-lasting solutions allowing for job creation. Another lesson was that the protests began with a demand for jobs, but soon expanded to include other problems in the country, which underlined the volatility that can accompany social dissatisfaction. However, the key question remains whether the Omani government will be able to find a balance between the economic problems that it is facing and the demands of protestors? How the government reacts will provide us with an answer, and will determine whether the present crisis can be ended or becomes just another stage in the turmoil that Oman is facing.