Oman protesters push political, pay demands

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 21, 2011 11:02 AM
Oman protesters push political, pay demands

By Saleh Al-Shaibany

MUSCAT (Reuters) - Demonstrators pressed their political and labor demands on Tuesday across the Gulf state of Oman, where a string of concessions by veteran ruler Sultan Qaboos bin Said have failed to halt a wave of unrest.

The protesters, calling for political reform, pay rises and more jobs, added a new demand -- that the new police chief investigate sacked ministers for alleged corruption. Qaboos has fired 12 ministers since the protests against his rule began.

"The new inspector general must immediately do his job and investigate the sacked ministers for corruption when they were in power," said demonstrator Khalfan Al Abri outside the Shura Council, which forms the elected wing of the Oman Council.

Qaboos, in power for 40 years, decided earlier this week to cede some legislative powers to the partly elected Oman Council, an advisory body. At present, only the sultan and his cabinet can pass laws.

The government also said it would double monthly welfare payments and increase pension benefits, making Oman the latest Gulf state to offer cash incentives to stop citizens' protests, inspired by those in Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

The state news agency said on Tuesday the sultan had ordered a salary rise of up to 100 rials ($260) a month from April 1 for civil servants -- including the security forces.

Pay demands have also hit the corporate sector, and several hundred workers at the state oil firm Petroleum Development Oman (PDO) demonstrated on Tuesday for higher wages at company headquarters and oil and gas fields.

It was the first such stoppage at a Gulf energy firm since the wave of unrest swept through the region.

"We are the worst paid oil workers in the Gulf. We want to be paid the same as other oil workers in other Gulf countries," said Suleiman Al-Harthy, a PDO staff member.

PAY DEMANDS HIT COMPANIES

Staff were also protesting outside firms including Oman International Bank, Oman Investment Finance Company and the government-owned Intercontinental hotel, where some guests were turned away.

Oman, a normally tranquil oil-producing nation at the mouth of the Gulf, was stunned at the onset of protests last month in which at least one person died in the industrial city of Sohar.

Activists have camped out nightly in tents in front of parliament in Muscat, outside the governor's office in Salalah in the far south and in Sohar. They are demanding better wages, more jobs, an elected parliament and a new constitution.

The numbers present at sit-ins vary from around 50 overnight to hundreds at other times of day and over 1,000 at weekends.

"We will celebrate when the Shura Council is granted real powers in the running of the government," said protester Hadi Suleiman.

Last week, wealthy Gulf Arab oil producers launched a $20 billion aid package for their less prosperous neighbors Oman and Bahrain -- a job-generating measure that should enable the two countries to upgrade their housing and infrastructure.

The ruling Gulf Arab dynasties, who have long been backed by Washington, hope the aid will help stave off demands for democratic reform by citizens looking at the dramatic changes brought about by people power elsewhere in the Arab world.

(Writing by Andrew Hammond, editing by Tim Pearce)