What do we want?

February 28, 2011

On most days my office windows look out onto beautiful mountains, palm trees, pretty government buildings and quiet Salalah traffic. This week, however, the view is a little more interesting. It includes protesters, banners, tents and police vehicles.

A few weeks ago, I would have laughed off the mere thought of an uprising in Oman, let alone the peaceful town where I live. Nonetheless, on Friday, hundreds of protesters marched from the Grand Mosque in Salalah to the central area of town where most government offices are.

Banners with clear demands were plastered on the gates of the Minister of State's headquarters, and the protesters set up camp for the night opposite the gates. It has been four days already, and from what I can see it doesn't look like they're going anywhere soon.

Not only have they increased in numbers, but they've actually set up one of the most organised protest camps I have ever seen. The quiet collection of donations and the distribution system for food and water is something to be admired. When I drove by last night, the protesters were sitting in groups, talking quietly.

So what is it that they want? Well, some of the demands seem perfectly realistic and feasible to me, whereas others may seem a little ambitious for the time being (cancelling all personal and housing loans?). First and foremost, protesters are demanding an end to administrative and financial corruption in the government and
private sector. Believe it or not, Omanis finally want to crack down on wasta (influence). I never thought I'd see the day.

Other major demands include the need for more jobs, higher wages and lower prices for basic commodities such as water and electricity. Do I blame them? No. I live a comfortable life, but all around me, I see people who live from paycheque to paycheque. Most people I know are in debt, and by the end of the month, many of them don't even have money to buy petrol or groceries.

Countless young people I know with university degrees are unable to find employment anywhere. Other demands include better healthcare and a complete revamp of the public schooling system. The list has been posted on every local Internet forum and is being sent around in the form of e-mails and SMS.

Before getting all excited about the protest drama, I find it's extremely important to make a clear distinction between the situation in Oman and recent events that have taken the rest of the Middle East by storm. We cannot, in any way, compare ourselves to the people of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. It's completely irrelevant.

Omanis have much to be thankful for. We live in a peaceful country which has come a long way since His Majesty took over 40 years ago, and we are truly blessed. With these current protests, Omanis are simply demanding changes to a few government policies.

The exaggeration I've seen in the international media regarding the protests in Oman is uncalled for. Simply put, Omanis are peaceful people who have recently discovered that protests actually work. Does that mean our protesters should become violent? No. Should we drop everything and go out into the streets? Absolutely not!

I'm a young Omani woman with very little experience in politics or anything of the sort, but I do know one thing; if we establish clear goals and collectively work towards them, they can be achieved. I'm hoping Oman can become a shining example of how protests should end up; in a win-win situation.

We can't demand an end to government corruption unless we, as individuals, stop depending on wasta ourselves on a much smaller scale. We cannot demand more jobs unless we prove that we are willing to really go out and work.

There are definitely jobs out there, but in many cases Omanis are too proud to go out and become shopkeepers or join other occupations which they consider to be beneath them. The age of comfortable office jobs for everyone is over.

Oman is not a huge country with an overwhelming population. With less than two million citizens, it's definitely possible to work together in order to make positive changes. If we have the right attitude, change can happen. It'll be interesting to see how the situation unfolds, but deep inside me, I hope Omanis realise that by being proactive, lots can be achieved. Fingers crossed.