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Tue 15 Mar 2011 03:37 PM

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Oman protesters push political, wage demands

Protesters say new police chief must investigate sacked ministers for alleged corruption

Oman protesters push political, wage demands
ARAB UNREST Omani protesters are demanding better wages, more jobs, an elected parliament and a new constitution (Getty Images)

Protesters pressed for political and labour demands on Tuesday across the Gulf state of Oman, where a string of concessions from veteran ruler Sultan Qaboos Bin Said have failed to bring unrest to an end.

Qaboos, in power for 40 years, decided earlier this week to cede some legislative powers to the partially elected Oman Council, which is so far only an advisory body. At present, only the sultan and his cabinet can legislate.

The government also said it would double monthly welfare payments and increase pension benefits, making Oman the latest Gulf state to offer handsome incentives to citizens in the wake of protests that have rocked much of the Arab world.

On Tuesday, protesters added to their demands, saying the sultan's new police chief must investigate sacked ministers for alleged corruption. Qaboos has fired twelve ministers so far.

"The new inspector general must immediately do his job and investigate the sacked ministers for corruption when they were in power," said Khalfan Al Abri at a demonstration outside the Shura Council, the elected chamber of parliament.

The normally tranquil oil-producing nation at the mouth of the Gulf was stunned by protests last month that left at least one person dead 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 the sit-ins vary from around 50 overnight to hundreds at other times of the day and over a thousand on weekends.

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

A series of strikes have also hit many companies. Two have so far been resolved, at Bank Muscat, the country's largest financial institution, and government-owned Oman Air.

But staff are still protesting outside other firms including Oman International Bank, Oman Investment Finance Company and Muscat's government-owned Intercontinental hotel, where some guests have been turned away.

Adel Aktouf, a Thomson Reuters employee, had booked a room in the hotel this week but was forced to leave.

"There were at least 150 protesters when we arrived with a hotel car. Even the driver was surprised. They stopped us ten metres from the hotel and said if we wanted to go in, we had to walk," he said. "Then some gathered around us and said 'whoever goes in, we'll beat him'. So we decided to find another hotel."

Oman's state news agency said on Tuesday the sultan had ordered a salary hike of up to OR100 ($260) a month from April 1 for civil servants, including the security forces.

Last week, wealthy Gulf Arab oil producers launched a $20bn aid package for their less prosperous neighbours 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, are hoping the socio-economic aid will help stave off the demands for democratic reforms.

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