Saturday, May 16, 2009

New York Times article on lack of Omani political freedom

In a nice follow up to the raised international profile Oman achieved through its recent prosecution by the State of an Omani forum administrator, Ali Zuwaidi, The New York Times over the weekend published a short article on Oman's apparent crack down on increased civil freedom, quoting extensively from minor members of the past and current Government, as well as Ali's lawyer Basmah Said.

Generations of the Dhori family — Rashid Said, 27, and his great-uncle, Saed al-Dhori — near their homes in Khasab, Oman Photo: Shawn Baldwin for The New York Times

As the UAE is finding out, the power of the net to disseminate stories internationally and to extend the news cycle away from the usual news media and state control applies increasingly to Oman too. The internet trial was a catalyst for lots of NGOs and journalists to 'discover' a country called Oman and to find out what the story was here. Oman having a free trade agreement with the USA has also raised the visibility of the Sultanate with foreign reporters.

I think the US, EU and their allies have been totally missing the point in the Middle East. Instead of focusing on forcing some dumbed down version of Democracy-lite and relatively minor issues such as 'voting', they would be better placed concentrating instead on boosting the independence of the media, and rights of freedom of speech and free association. An ignorant population ruled by an exclusive elite, or a situation where citizens can vote but are allowed no effective say in the issues of Government on pain of imprisonment, is not a democracy worthy of the name. Far more critical is the ability of the people to safely voice their support or disapproval of the actions of Government or the powerful.

A benign dictatorship with a strong free press and robust civil society, characterised by open debate and diversity of opinion is, to my way of thinking, far more effectively in line with the true spirit of democracy and power to the people. Compare that to the supposed 'democracies' of Egypt, Venezuela, Russia or Iran et al, where you may have the right to vote occasionally, but just try criticising the Government, or even having a say in who the choice of vote is between.

So, well done Michael Slackman for this article, and another recent one on the fantastic smugglers of Khasab and Oman's pragmatic policy of Iranian engagement. (In that story he states how the local government in Oman coordinates deliveries to the smugglers’ boats, and of course collects taxes on the smuggling).

But his story on political freedom (reposted below) is, unfortunately, unlikely to be republished or even mentioned in the official media here.

At least for now.

And thanks too to Omanis willing to stand up and be quoted: Said al-Hashmi, Salim al-Mahruqi, Ahmed al-Mukhaini, and Basmah Said.

KHASAB, Oman — The mountains here are solid rock, flint-colored jagged peaks slicing through the haze and dust of intensely hot days. The old Dhori family home is at the top of one unforgiving peak, a single room made of stone. No electricity, no water, a doorway as small as a window, one narrow dark room and a dirt floor.

That was what the Dhoris knew for generations. Then the present ruler of Oman, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, staged a coup against his father, and the Dhori family came down to the valley. Sultan Qaboos provided water and electricity, and over the next 39 years transformed a country that had been hermetically sealed into a modern state.

For the older generations, that is more than enough. But like the rest of the Middle East, Oman has a very young population, a generation that did not experience the deprivations of the not-too-distant past. They are generally educated and aware. They want political change, rule of law, freedom of speech, institutions, a voice.

As a whole, Oman is a rare success story in the modern Middle East, a nation that has managed to navigate the shoals of modernity while holding onto its traditional identity. It has oil wealth, but its people still know the value of work.

But it is also an example of why authoritarian systems, no matter how benevolent and right minded, eventually rub up against the human desire for justice and self-determination.

“For me, for my generation, there are a lot of ambitions,” said Said al-Hashmi, 32, the information and research manager for the State Council, one of two advisory bodies that were formed in place of a real Parliament. “My father, my grandfather, grandmother, they really appreciate this life. For me, I don’t appreciate it like that. We need civil life, we need more democracy or real democracy.”

Oman is experiencing the stirrings of discontent. It is not with Sultan Qaboos, at least not publicly, but with the government, whose officials declined to be interviewed for this article.

“The challenge now is to open the system and be more transparent and more accountable,” said Salim al-Mahruqi, a former Omani diplomat who runs the Culture Club, an arm of the Ministry of Culture. There is virtually no civil society in Oman; citizen organizations are all affiliated with the government. The university does not have a political science department. Only the sultan has the power to approve laws.

As the quiet calls for change spread, there are some signs that Oman is taking the familiar approach of authoritarian states in the Middle East, relying on security services and restrictive laws to silence and frighten the people. A recently amended law allows the government to prosecute anyone associated with a Web site or blog that posts anything objectionable, not just the writer.

A blogger was sentenced last month to 10 days in jail after posting on a public forum a confidential government document that called for secretly forcing a call-in radio show to stop live broadcasts and to record the show, so the government could censor the comments.

Perhaps more ominously, one political analyst said that top government positions, once filled with academics and prominent members of society, are increasingly being filled by former security officials. “They’re putting brakes now on all development,” said Ahmed al-Mukhaini, a former adviser and researcher for the State Council. “I think it is natural for them to do this because they have power, and no one is willing to give up power unless there is a civil struggle. And Omanis are not willing to have a civil struggle.”

There are some positive signs, glimmers of hope that Oman will find a way to satisfy the desire for greater political freedom. Last month, there was a two-day workshop to discuss freedom of speech. It was organized by a writers’ association and was seen as a monumental achievement.

“Things will change,” said Basmah Said, 24, the lawyer who represented the blogger charged with posting the government document. “It is bound to happen. The government might interfere with a stick to slow the wheel but things will change.”

Oman, a nation of about three million people, has survived in a turbulent neighborhood in part because it has adopted a keep-your-head down approach, shunning the kind of attention many of its regional neighbors have craved. This differentiates Oman from Dubai, which is right next door and before the global financial crisis was often promoted as the model modern Arab state.

Oman, however, may ultimately emerge as the model modern Arab state, at least in terms of development. It started from nearly zero when the sultan took power. At the time, the gates to the capital city of Muscat were still being closed at night. Sunglasses were banned, along with bicycles and radios, as Western conventions. There was essentially no national infrastructure. Infant mortality was so high that families held celebrations when a baby survived to its first birthday.

But when the sultan came to power, he offered a chance for change and he called on Omanis to work with him to build a new state. Oman had oil, and the money helped a great deal.

But there was no pressure to come out of the hills. For at least another 14 years, Saed al-Dhori was reluctant to leave a life that centered on the daily donkey ride along narrow paths to fetch water from a well. In the valley below, his extended family built homes and had children, and those children went to school, and bought cars. He finally came down in 1984, when he was ready. That was part of the sultan’s plan, to let people move at their own pace.

“Before, people moved everywhere on donkeys,” said Mr. Dhori, a diminutive man in his 80s with hands and feet as rough as the rocks around him. “You could stop them and talk to them. Now, everyone is zooming around in cars.”

He marvels at the changes. But Oman has also discovered that it is difficult to open the doors to modernity, especially to education, without also fostering a degree of cynicism about authority and a desire for more freedom. That, and the reality that its oil may soon run out, is what Oman is wrestling with today.

“This is our life, we have to talk about freedom of speech and about public freedoms,” said Mr. Hashmi, the information and research manager of the State Council. “These are not accessories. These are necessities for Omanis in the 21st century.”


  1. How much you want to bet the Omani government has invited them NYT team to do these reports and even lined up the people for them to interview?

  2. I would hesitate to bet against you Muscati, esp. on matters such as that! And what would be the proof? A leader in the Times of Oman perhaps?

    Although - and even though I confess to using the term myself - I note it is increasingly difficult to accurately describe the various governing bodies in Oman as "The Government" as if they are a single aligned decision making unit.

    There are many factions, all with different power bases, power, and objectives.

    They only really come together at the top. And I would hope he would want us to develop, as quickly as cultural change allows, a robust civil society and ('responsible') free speech, as it would help stop a future demagog exploiting a dictatorial system and control the small minority of the 'back to the dark ages' islamo-nutters...

    Are you

  3. ...going to join the debate?

    Or you still too wary of Article 61...?


If you wish to post anonymously, please pick a nickname by selecting the Name/URL option, or at least sign off your comment with one! I will delete comments I find objectionable or needlessly inflammatory. Sorry for the word verification.... OMG the spam has gotten BAD these past 12 months... trying to avoid making one log in...