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Oman Prepares to Vote Amid Uncertain Times

An election campaign billboard in Muscat, Oman, promoting a reformist candidate, October 12, 2011.

Oman is preparing to hold its first general election since pro-reform demonstrations spread throughout the country earlier this year. The vote follows a pledge by the government to meet most demands set by protesters-a move that has generally pacified public displays of dissent. However, some Omanis say the slow pace of change could prompt further unrest.

Over 1,000 candidates will be vying for 84 seats on Oman’s Shura Council when polls open on October 15.

The body is part of the larger Council of Oman, which also includes the appointed State Council and has traditionally met at the request of Sultan Qaboos bin Said to discuss topics of his choice.

Responding to the widespread protests in the country, Sultan Qaboos, in March, granted “legislative and regulatory powers” to the Council of Oman. It is still unclear exactly what the powers permit.

Nevertheless, many Omanis see the move as a step forward. There are over 130,000 more registered voters for this year’s election than there were in the last poll in 2007.

Badr al-Qasimi, who is running for a seat in the capital, Muscat, says there is also a noticeable increase in the number of candidates this year.

"A lot of things have been changed [for the] better," he said. "Last time, I didn’t nominate myself due to my belief that the council was not to our expectations. Now, the council is to our expectations."

In addition to announcing legislative reform, Sultan Qaboos also pledged to create 50,000 new government jobs, allocated more funds for the unemployed and reshuffled his cabinet.

Omanis first took to the streets in January to demand more jobs, higher salaries, greater democracy and an end to government corruption. Some claim a number of ministers continue to embezzle state funds while others in the country are unable to pay for food or receive a proper education.

A Muscat resident who wished to be identified only as Ismail says the reforms announced by Sultan Qaboos are not sufficient to tackle the nation’s most pressing problems.

“Those are not the things that we went to the street and we protested for. We want to have full freedom, to have a full elected parliament,” said Ismail.

Oman’s season of unrest was most pronounced in the northern industrial town of Sohar, where clashes between demonstrators and security forces left two people dead.

Other substantial rallies were held in Muscat, Sur and Salalah.

A number of participants say they were arbitrarily arrested following the demonstrations. Some claim they were tortured in prison. Authorities deny the accusations.

Oman’s unrest has been unique in that, so far, protesters have not been calling for the ouster of the monarchy. In fact, they have emphasized their loyalty to Sultan Qaboos. But Sultan al-Sa’adi, who was jailed after taking part in the Sohar demonstrations, says that sentiment could change.

“If the situation continues like this, nobody can say that regime change here in Oman is not going to be announced by some of the people. We don’t want that. We still have trust in this regime, but that regime has to open his mind, has to open his hand. He has to listen to people,” said Sultan.

Ismail from Muscat believes it is only a matter of time before Omani citizens return to the streets to demand greater reform. “People, they’ve lost hope in this government and they’re just waiting for one flame and then everything will burn, will explode again,” he said.

Oman has historically been one of the most peaceful nations in the Middle East.

Most analysts like Gala Riani from London-based IHS Global Insight say the recent tensions in the sultanate should not be overlooked by the international community-not least because of the county’s strategic location. Oman is neighbors with Iran, has a border with Yemen and lies on the Strait of Hormuz-the strategic waterway through which all oil shipped from the Persian Gulf must pass.

“If there were more instability in Oman, it would have regional implications and it’s certainly not a situation that anyone should be complacent about,” she said.

Sultan Qaboos established the Shura Council in 1991 in a bid to modernize Oman’s government.

Successful candidates are elected to four-year terms and are permitted to run for re-election. No foreign observers have been invited to monitor this year’s poll.

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