“Sultan Qaboos, Oman’s absolute ruler, is a man of culture,” writes Brian Whitaker.
“I have never encountered a place in the Arab world so well-governed as Oman, and in such a quiet and understated way,” Robert Kaplan wrote the other day in an article for Foreign Policy headed “Oman’s renaissance man”.
Last weekend, though, overshadowed by events in Libya, there were disturbances in Sohar (Oman’s second city) along with more peaceful demonstrations elsewhere in the country. Protesters’ complaints were the familiar ones heard these days in most of the Arab countries: government corruption, cronyism and youth unemployment.
Oman has an exceptionally young population – 43% are under the age of 15 – and even those who buy the line that Oman is well governed recognise that the authorities face an uphill struggle in providing jobs. “The problem is evolving faster than they can provide solutions,” one person who is familiar with the country (and asked not to be identified) told me this week.
But there’s another problem too. Even if Qaboos is a Britain-friendly, music-loving ruler with benevolent intentions he is none the less a despot. He doesn’t tolerate criticism and his citizens have very few rights. They can’t, for instance, hold a public meeting without the government’s approval. Anyone who wants to set up a non-governmental organisation of any kind needs a licence. To get it, they have to demonstrate that the organisation is “for legitimate objectives” and not “inimical to the social order”. On average, that takes two years – assuming permission is granted at all.