SALALAH, Oman (Reuters) – Some 3,000 protesters took to the streets after Friday prayers in Oman’s southern port of Salalah in one of the biggest pro-reform demonstrations since scattered unrest began in the sultanate two months ago.
Instead of conducting prayers in a mosque, a preacher held them in a car park across the street from the governor’s office, where about 3,000 worshippers had gathered. They marched through the streets after his sermon.
“The Omani people are not afraid of protesting for as long as it takes for reform, first and foremost is to get government officials, who have been embezzling funds for years, to stand trial,” the cleric, Amer Hargan, told the crowd.
Sultan Qaboos bin Said, a U.S. ally who has ruled Oman for 40 years, promised a $2.6 billion (1.5 billion pounds) spending package last Sunday after nearly two months of demonstrations inspired by popular uprisings that have spread across the Arab world.
Omani demonstrators have focussed their demands on better wages, jobs and an end to graft. Many are angered by the state’s perceived unwillingness to prosecute ministers sacked for corruption in response to demonstrations in February.
They are also impatient to see more employment opportunities, after Sultan Qaboos vowed last month to create 50,000 jobs.
“We are still waiting for the jobs we’ve been promised,” said protester Seif al-Basaid. “How long do we have to wait?”
Unrest in Oman has been on a relatively small scale, with dozens of protesters camping out in tents near the quasi-parliament, the Shura council, in the capital Muscat.
A sit-in that had lasted for weeks in the industrial town of Sohar, the epicentre of Oman’s protest movement, was suppressed when security forces deployed, clearing road blocks and arresting hundreds for alleged acts of vandalism.
Earlier this week Oman announced pardons for 234 people arrested during protests, but did not say when they were freed.
Gulf Arab oil producers, keen to prevent popular uprisings from taking hold in their region, launched a $20 billion aid package for protest-hit Bahrain and Oman last month.
That job-generating measure, which will give $10 billion to each country to upgrade housing and infrastructure over 10 years, was more than had been expected.
Sultan Qaboos has offered a series of job reforms, including a monthly allowance for the unemployed and pay rises for civil servants. But in Salalah, protesters said the wage increase to 200 rials $519.50 a month, from 140 rials, was not enough.
“I got a job last week in the private sector, but it is only 200 rials and that is not enough to look after myself. The government needs to double the minimum wage,” said protester Ali al-Mahrati.
He promised in March to cede some legislative powers to the partially-elected Oman Council, an advisory body. Now only the sultan and his cabinet can legislate, and a transfer of powers has yet to be announced.