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In Oman, a young female editor exemplifies new boldness

Muscat, Oman – In many ways, 21-year-old Kawkab al-Balushi could be the future of Oman.

She’s already battled resistance from her university to publish a student magazine, continuing to churn out glossy editions after an official reprimand for having started without permission.

By 30, she plans to hold public office on the country’s only elected council. By 32, she will become a minister, she says, helping to run this quiet sultanate that has experienced unprecedented civil unrest in the past month.

Like nearly everyone in the modern, relatively wealthy Gulf nation, Ms. Balushi professes a deep, unflinching devotion to Oman’s leader of 40 years, Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said.

But she’s also emblematic of a new willingness here to challenge authority after years of public silence. Whereas other Arab revolutions have solidified around a single demand or set of demands, the revolutionary development here may be that Omanis are asking for anything at all – even if they are not unified on what they want or the best way to achieve it.

They aren’t asking for democracy. They want a Blackberry.’

As about 20 male students gathered in the campus quad of Sohar University recently to demonstrate outside the library, Balushi, dressed in a black abaya and a lime-green head scarf, clucks her tongue in disapproval.

“If I were His Majesty, I’d feel so insulted,” she says. “This doesn’t solve anything.”

She also describes how rebellious attitudes have spread to the classroom, recalling a recent incident when students began chatting on their mobile phones in the middle of a lecture and challenging the Canadian teacher in Arabic.

“These demonstrations had a bad effect on everyone,” says Balushi. “They are being rude to everyone. They aren’t asking for freedom and democracy. They want a Blackberry.”

Her reaction to the demonstrations in her country, which so far have been mostly peaceful, highlight the challenges both for those pushing for change and for a government that has responded with unprecedented concessions only to be met with new demands, more strikes, more demonstrations, more protest.

Significant issues, such as government reform and citizenship rights, are getting lost in the noise. It is generally accepted, however, that whatever is happening in Oman, there is no turning back.

“It’s a matter of the pressure building, of people feeling, ‘If we can’t do it now, when can we?’ ” says Brenda Bickett, a librarian at Georgetown University who lived in Oman in the late 1980s and visits periodically. “It’s just a sense that, ‘We’re going to do this and see what happens.’ ”

At home, ‘Omanis are all politicians

This is not strictly a youth uprising in Oman, though young people are heartily taking part.

In the northern city of Sohar, where at least one protester was killed in late February during violent clashes with riot police, the protesters are predominantly young men angry about their inability to get jobs, who can’t afford the roughly $25,000 dowry needed to get married.

But in the capital of Muscat, which has seen multiple protests daily for several weeks, all age groups are pressing for higher salaries, more maternity leave benefits, citizenship for the children of Omani women who marry foreigners, better housing allowances, and a myriad of other demands.

In fact, the entire country seems to be protesting something these days.

In one recent example, residents stopped traffic for hours after a child was killed when a school bus collided with a bus at a highway junction north of Barka. Residents complained that they had been asking for safety improvements at the intersection for years.

In the new Oman, the Oman that has emerged only in recent weeks, their discontent spilled over into the streets in a spontaneous outburst of public anger – and the police did not intervene.

“Omanis, in the house, are all politicians,” says Badria al-Shihi, an applied chemistry professor at Sultan Qaboos University. “But outside you’re not sure whom you are talking to. I speak freely, and I’ve never had anyone drag me to prison. It’s the fear that this could happen that [kept] people from talking.”

Why government has allowed protests

Indeed, protesting Omanis have met virtually no resistance from the police or military, even as the demonstrations have blocked traffic and disrupted life in neighborhoods where they have occurred. Oman’s restraint stands out in the wider Gulf region, where authorities have violently clashed with protesters in Bahrain and two of Oman’s neighbors – Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

Yet there are some signs that the government may be growing weary of the public displays of expression. During prayers at the main protest site in Sohar on Friday, a government helicopter buzzed over the crowd, disrupting the service.

And the country’s attorney general, Hussein bin Ali al-Hilali, while noting that Omanis enjoy freedom speech told the Times of Oman newspaper last week that the government would investigate demonstrators who use cellphone text messages to “fuel the passions of the people.”

So far, however, there has been no crackdown, and the demonstrations have continued without interruption from the authorities, even as protesters have blocked access to the Port of Sohar and some of the country’s main tourist hotels.

Some protests have even taken on a carnival atmosphere. At the Globe roundabout in Sohar, protesters dine on free meals provided by anonymous benefactors and play music. At the Book roundabout at an entrance to Sultan Qaboos University, the country’s only public college, students have set up tents, and demonstrators sit on blankets drinking tea or working from laptops connected to portable generators.

“Allowing peaceful protest affirms the leadership’s sense of its own stability,” says Mandana Limbert, the author of a book about Oman titled, “In the Time of Oil,” and an anthropologist at Queens College in New York.

“It is difficult to say what this means about future change, but it certainly suggests that the state recognizes that violent crackdown may only fuel further frustration and would ultimately not reflect well on the image of the country and its leadership.”

Excited about the future, worried about violence

At Sohar University, Balushi and her classmate Mahfouda al-Ghaithi, both studying English education, say that while they are excited about the future in Oman, the recent demonstrations also have made them fearful.

“I’m not against what is happening,” says Ghaithi, who like Balushi felt afraid when rioters looted and burned businesses during the worst of Sohar’s protests so far. “They have a right to call for their rights but not in this way.”

Students protesting at the nation’s colleges and universities are asking for everything from being able to graduate even if they have failing grades to easing English language requirements for students who want to teach English.

But some demands may place too little responsibility on protesters themselves.

Mohamed Virji, a US Fulbright scholar who taught at Oman Medical College last year, says he was surprised by the high unemployment rates among the young given how progressive the sultanate appears.

Part of the problem, however, was their expectations, he says.

“I found that the young adults and the college students did have rather unrealistic expectations about the type of jobs that they were willing to perform,” says Dr. Virji, a pathologist and professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

“Most expected to have management and decisionmaking positions where the actual work would be executed by imported workers – professionals in various fields through construction workers, cooks, and domestic help.”

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In Oman, protests spur timid media to cover the news

Muscat, Oman – The fact that Oman’s first civil unrest in 40 years left at least one person dead in a northern port city here was big news. But it was even bigger news that the English-language Muscat Daily declared “Black Sunday in Sohar” on its front page and carried a half-page photograph showing smoke filling the sky above a roundabout seized by protesters.

For a reserved, conservative country, where media self-censorship is routine and culture dictates that people keep their opinions to themselves, such coverage shows how quickly change is coming to this small Gulf nation.

“I think the fact that we were able to bring out a newspaper with a front-page coverage of the situation in Sohar on Monday is ample proof that Oman is a mature country and everyone here understands that the violence was a random act by hooligans who do not represent what Omanis really believe in,” says Mohana Prabhakar, managing editor of the Muscat Daily, which launched in 2009. “The authorities understand that people need to know what’s happening from a credible source.”

Press laws in this sleepy sultanate on the Arabian peninsula generally do not prohibit coverage of the government, although people are not allowed to write about or insult the royal family. Still Oman’s newspapers typically do not cover stories that might offend the government. In fact, journalists in this country of 2.8 million often express frustration over their inability to break real news and provide accountable reporting of the monarchy.

But in the past few days, nearly all of the major dailies in Oman have reported on the unrest, the state-run TV station has broadcast special programs on the demonstrations, and at least one radio station in the capital broadcast a call-in show where people shared their opinions about what Omanis need. The Oman News Agency also released reports about the demonstrations, sending text messages to some mobile phones with updates.

Now, there is fun

The atmosphere of increased freedom is exhilarating for journalists who have long labored under self-censorship, as well as students aspiring to a career in journalism.

“Really, I am surprised,” says an editor at another English-language daily in Muscat, who says that for the first time in six years he is excited about being a journalist in Oman. “Now, there is fun. Even though the incidents are not good, at least we are now able to do true journalism up to an extent.”

Still, he says, he is nervous, which is why he didn’t want his name or his publication’s name to be used.

“Even though I am not writing anything against the nation, and I am just doing my job sincerely, I am worried that I may drag unnecessary attention from the authorities,” says the man, who is from India.

Where is Al Jazeera?

A peaceful protest that began as a sit-in this weekend at the main roundabout to this port city turned violent by Sunday, the start of the work week here, with several hundred protesters hurling rocks at riot police. The police responded with some bombs and canisters of gas.

Many ran away from the sound and then edged back toward the roundabout. They wanted to know where the media were. Where is Al Jazeera? Where is BBC. We want Al Jazeera.

“See this,” one protester told a Western journalist taking pictures. “This is like Qaddafi.”

This is the first time in four decades that Omanis have seen this level of anger and rioting.

Oman’s leader, Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said, issued a number of royal decrees to appease the demonstrators, including the establishment of an independent authority for consumer protection and increasing housing allowances for government employees and some university students. The Sultan also made some changes to his cabinet, and announced unemployment wages and 50,000 new jobs.

I hope the truth will come out

In Sohar, the scene of the worst violence, the editor of a student magazine at Sohar University says even it will carry coverage of the events.

Kawkab Al Balushi, who will graduate this year, says the Sohar Horizon hasn’t carried coverage yet but will have an article in its next issue.

“I hope the truth will come out by that time about who is actually responsible for the fire which started in many places,” says Mr. Balushi. “People in Sohar denied having anything to do with those protesters. I believe that and I know that Omanis won’t destroy their own country, as we all love Oman and love His Majesty.”

Balushi says the TV coverage reflects how “unexpected and unprecedented” any public display of discontent is in Oman.

“I hope this issue gets over soon,” he says. “Oman is well known of its peace and security. We want that back.”

I am not going to be a fashion reporter

Mass communications students at Sultan Qaboos University in the Omani capital said they were excited for the first time about their future careers as journalists.

One student who has been studying for three years and will graduate this spring says she has never reported before she began interviewing people about the unrest for a special project. Her mother tried to stop her, she says. “But I told her, I am not going to be a fashion reporter,” she recounts. “Why did you let me study media if you didn’t want me to do this?”

Obaid Said, a mass communications professor, says many reporters and news organizations in Oman practiced self-censorship.

“Self censorship was prevalent and was accompanied by narrow understanding of the space of freedom guaranteed by the laws in the country on one hand and lack of professionalism on the other,” he says. “It will open their eyes to the importance of reporting local issues in order to regain and maintain their credibility. I think it will last because changes are [sweeping] many aspects, including media.”

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