The end of a chapter

May 24, 2011

The past two weeks have been extremely puzzling for those of us living in Salalah. On the evening of May 12, I hit the runway at exactly 8pm after a relaxing couple of days in Muscat and the first thing I noticed was that I had no phone reception. It dawned upon me that something was horribly wrong when I stepped out of the airport and saw helicopters hovering over central Salalah.

I knew immediately it had something to do with the peaceful sit-in that had started in February. The main highway was blocked by ROP officers and the whole centre of town seemed to be surrounded by armed forces. I was stuck in traffic for over an hour and unable to contact anyone in my family.

Once the phone network was up two full hours later, there was a burst of phone activity as people called each other to report what they had seen and heard. It was later revealed through the grapevine that several hundred protesters had been arrested at the sit-in area and that several key speakers had been plucked out of the square via helicopter and taken to goodness knows where up north.

More people were arrested the following morning, and finally the group was taken to a prison facility just outside Salalah, where they remained for nine days.

As a young woman who wasn’t necessarily with or against the protests, I have mixed feelings about the whole thing. On one hand, I felt the sit-in had gone on for too long. I’m not denying the fact that without these men, none of the huge changes would have materialised in Oman. Without the protests that had taken place all over the country since February, over 50,000 people would still be without jobs, and families on welfare would still be living on next to nothing.

We’ve seen so many Royal Decrees and positive changes in this country lately, and we have our young men to thank for speaking up, and His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said most of all to thank, for listening.

I think the remaining demands on their long list require more time and I honestly believe the protesters should have ended the sit-in voluntarily towards the end of March.

On the other hand, I also have mixed feelings about the army intervention plan. For ten weeks, I had been watching the sit-in from my office window, and I honestly still do not understand why it was brought to an end with such excessive use of power. Detaining several hundred people without charges for nine days doesn’t speak well for Oman’s justice system.

It’s been nearly two weeks, and the armed forces are still occupying the square where the sit-in had taken place. For the first week after the arrests, there were army tanks lining the main road, and soldiers at every corner. I had to go through three checkpoints in order to get to my office, which is conveniently located right next to the square.

I kept on hearing the same sentence again and again from my friends and colleagues, “There was no need for all this.” I tend to agree, because as far as I’m concerned, bringing hundreds of soldiers, tanks and weapons into Salalah for a bunch of guys sitting in a tent in a parking lot drinking tea and talking about a ‘different’ Oman was uncalled for.

I’m saying this because the sit-in remained completely peaceful for almost three months. Zero violence. However, let’s assume for a moment that I’m wrong. Let’s assume they were committing a crime against this country. If those men in the governor’s parking lot really were a threat to security, then surely it’s our right to know why?

If there were clear justifications for all the arrests, I think the people of this beautiful country want to hear them. We want to know what the charges were. I believe the sit-in would have died down eventually had the government given them a little more time. The numbers were already dwindling by the time the army came.

Furthermore, the secrecy involving the arrests and release of all the prisoners baffles me. The fact that I had to read the Los Angeles Times and Gulf News in order to find out what was going on in my own town is ridiculous. Why wasn’t there enough local media coverage of the recent events in Salalah? Several times over the past two weeks, I’ve had to knock myself on the head to remind myself that this is happening in Oman.

I’m horrified at the recent turn of events, as I’m sure many of you are. I hope the armed forces move out of Salalah soon, simply because their presence makes the quiet residents of Salalah nervous, and I pray that the release of all detained protesters from the local prison two nights ago will mark the end of a bitter and embarrassing chapter in the history of this town.

I’d like to think what happened was a huge misunderstanding and I hope our men give up on the idea of sit-ins for the time being. There are a million other ways to make positive changes, and it all starts from within. God bless our wise leader and God bless the Sultanate of Oman. La fin.