Sunday, November 18, 2012

Criticizing Qaboos

The conventional view is that Sultan Qaboos of Oman ranks among the most popular unelected national leaders in the world.  His 42-year reign is called the "Renaissance" ("nahda" in Arabic), as he has seen the flowing of oil revenues and been willing to work with European governments and capital to develop a country which he inherited as one of the region's most backward.  This is not all propaganda; Omanis I have spoken with have been generally favorable to his rule and trusting him to see them into the future.  According to Marc Valeri, the past two years have seen him fall from that pedestal:
The regime’s repressive response to the popular demands plunged many Omanis into deep bewilderment. Hitherto, Omanis had not been used to seeing public criticism of ongoing policies erupt onto the street. Instead, they had been told for forty years to rely on the reassuring paternal figure of “Baba Qaboos” to arbitrate and resolve all public matters. Particularly disturbing for many Omanis was the repeated labelling of the protesters as “delinquents” and “vandals” by senior officials and the sentencing of more than one hundred individuals across the country to jail terms on fabricated charges of “possessing material with the intention of making explosives to spread terror.” These individuals were, after all, relatives, neighbours, or members of the wider community simply asking for better living conditions. Also incomprehensible was Qaboos’s lack of public appearance and his failure to meet with protesters in 2011. His decision to entrench himself in his palace in Manah further illustrated his unwillingness to either challenge his image as arbiter above mundane problems or to take the risk of denting his prestige by having to face overt popular criticism...
The ruler, who in 2011 fired high profile ministers who had served for so long as political fodder, no longer has anyone to blame in order to pacify protesters and their discontent. He is now in the line of fire, as the jokes about him that currently thrive on Facebook testify. Accounts of harassment by security forces, violations of basic human rights, and denunciations of the existence of a security and police state [dawla al-amn wa-l-bulis] have mushroomed on the Internet and Twitter. Online writers and protesters who openly criticized the ruler’s practices–namely, his proximity to British and US interests and his management of oil rent–were quickly arrested and condemned to jail for lèse-majesté. The regime’s successful, decades long legitimation mechanism, based on the identification of contemporary Oman as a whole to Qaboos, also began to falter and is openly challenged by activists and bloggers who now make a clear distinction between the current regime and the Omani nation...
As a consequence of the unwillingness to answer the multiple calls for help from his subjects, Sultan Qaboos has fallen from his symbolic pedestal. The official narrative stressing Omanis’ duty of loyalty towards Baba Qaboos in the name of the nahda ideology is like a broken record that has proved inaudible in a country where eighty-four percent of the population was born after 1970 and seventy percent after 1980. This young Omani civil society is composed of educated males and females who no longer agree to abdicate their right to take part in the political and economic decisions the country is facing, as their parents had done in the name of social welfare or for the requirement of national unity behind the ruler. Many Omanis are now aware that the Sultan will be held accountable for decisions that will impact the post-Qaboos Omani for generations. As one of the Sohar activists summarizes, “Qaboos has become somebody like anybody else, he can make mistakes like anybody else…”
Valeri's picture is of an elderly sultan who has lost touch with the country and its younger generation, a picture eerily similar to that of Mubarak in Egypt and Ben Ali in Tunisia.  He also seems to cast the crackdown on protests as a critical turning point, which follows a pattern of regimes in the region paying a price in legitimacy when they use force against their own citizens.



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