Largest protests since Arab Spring sweep Oman as UK support for regime rises

As Oman’s UK-trained police confront popular protests against unemployment and corruption in the dictatorial Gulf state, the British military prepares to deploy an aircraft carrier to a new UK naval base in Oman, and the head of the Royal Air Force praises his Omani counterpart.

26 May 2021

Protests in Oman started on Sunday in Sohar. (Photo: Supplied)

  • Omani police use tear gas and armoured vehicles against largest demonstrations for 10 years
  • Campaign Against Arms Trade calls for investigation into possible use of UK-made tear gas, over £16-million worth of which has been supplied to Oman
  • Protesters fear being surveilled in country where UK spy agency GCHQ has three secret listening stations
  • UK troops serve in Omani military and are believed to assist with internal security 

Britain’s closest ally in the Gulf has been rocked by three days of protests in the largest show of dissent against its unelected Sultan since the Arab Spring in 2011.

Police have fired tear gas, deployed armoured vehicles and mass arrested protesters, raising concern over the British government’s extensive support for Oman’s monarchy.

It comes as Britain’s new aircraft carrier set sail on Saturday on a voyage that will see her stop off at the UK’s growing naval base in Duqm, Oman, and with the head of Britain’s Royal Air Force currently meeting his Omani counterpart.

Thousands of Omanis are protesting against high levels of unemployment and corruption, as well as police crackdowns on their initial attempts to demonstrate.

All political parties are banned in Oman where it is a criminal offence to insult the Sultan, who rules with absolute power. The only independent newspaper, Al Zaman, has been shut down for attempting to cover corruption.

Declassified recently showed that until at least last year, Oman’s ruler was secretly advised by a British-dominated privy council that held midnight meetings at his lavish palace. Its members have included General Nick Carter, the current head of the British military and Richard Moore, the chief of intelligence agency MI6.

Other high-level advisers to the Sultan have been Mervyn King, the former governor of the Bank of England, and Lord Geidt, an ex-private secretary to the Queen who is now responsible for stopping corruption among British government ministers.

British advisers dominate the Sultan’s privy council. (Photo: In the Thick of It)

It is not known whether the Sultan followed all the economic and strategic advice provided by his privy council, but Oman spends more on its military per person than almost any other country in the world and has a vast national debt.

Much of the regime’s military equipment has been bought from British arms companies, which have received billions of pounds from Oman since the Arab Spring in 2011.

Those protesters were partly placated when Oman’s then Sultan, Qaboos bin Said, created 10,000 new jobs in the police force. However such short-term tactics to reduce unemployment have saddled his successor, his nephew Haitham bin Tarik, with more national debt, a problem compounded as revenue from oil reserves fell 35% at the start of 2021.

Anonymous opposition sources inside Oman told Declassified last week that discontent about the economy was at an all-time high and had risen since our privy council revelations. People were afraid to speak out openly for fear of reprisals and some worry that Oman’s newly expanded cyber security apparatus could intercept their messages.

GCHQ, Britain’s electronic surveillance force, has three listening stations based at secret locations in Oman. In addition, Crossword – a cyber security company chaired by Richard Dearlove, a former head of MI6 who sat on the Sultan’s privy council – announced last week that it was setting up its Middle East headquarters in Oman.

Despite concern at being monitored, on Sunday morning people gathered outside the labour ministry in Sohar, an industrial city in northern Oman. They were almost immediately arrested by large numbers of riot police, but a handful of photos from the protest went viral and trended in Oman on Twitter.

Another group of around 30 men attempted to protest in Sohar on Monday morning, but were surrounded by a similar number of riot police vehicles and taken away in a police coach. Almost identical scenes were repeated in Salalah, a city 850 km southwest of Sohar.

A larger group then gathered near the labour ministry in Sohar where they were chased away by riot police. Some protesters resorted to throwing stones against well-protected police units, who responded with tear gas.

The British government approved the export of £16.6-million worth of tear gas to Oman in August 2015, and has allowed smaller quantities to be shipped there in the last 12 months, according to research by Campaign Against Arms Trade.

Oman’s police have also had extensive training from the UK, including at the College of Policing in Britain as well as public order sessions with officers from Northern Ireland and its state-owned company, NI-CO.

The training is currently being delivered through the Foreign Office’s Gulf Strategy Fund.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland trained Oman’s riot police in 2017. (Photo: Declassified UK)

As smaller groups of protesters continued to march around the streets of Sohar on Monday morning, armoured vehicles belonging to Oman’s army were seen approaching the city and police set up roadblocks.

Almost 100 serving British troops are on loan to Oman’s military and UK army officers serve in Omani armoured units and military intelligence. Their rules of engagement are classified, but early versions show they were permitted to assist with internal security.

By midday on Monday, riot police were seen snatching individuals from the streets of Sohar and officials warned people not to film the security forces or discuss them on social media platforms such as WhatsApp.

Local media were also censored by the information ministry while state TV initially ignored the protests, belatedly publishing some photos from the protest only once they were being reported by international media.

Later on Monday fresh protests broke out in Salalah, in support of the activists in Sohar. Many of the protesters in Salalah appear to come from the mountainous Dhofar region, which has a long history of resistance to the Omani Sultans and fought against British special forces in the 1970s.

Their protests continued late into the night and were met with a markedly smaller police presence. By the end of Monday, the police released many of the protesters who had been arrested.

However, this concession did not stop an even larger wave of protests starting on Tuesday morning, as youths in Salalah returned to the streets at first light.

Protests also took place in at least eight other cities: Sur, Nizwa, Ibri, Ibra, Rustaq, Suwayq, Al-Khaburah and again in Sohar.

Nabhan al-Hanashi, a political exile and chairman of the Omani Centre for Human Rights, told Declassified that the protests should not come as a surprise.

“The people in Oman, especially the unemployed, were waiting for reforms to take place a long time ago,” he commented. “During the last days of Qaboos they were silenced. When Haitham took over, he promised the people he would do lots of reforms and hold corrupt officials to account. But nothing happened.”

An activist in Oman, who asked to remain anonymous for safety reasons, told Declassified: “As an Omani citizen I feel upset that we carry the Omani government’s mistakes. We as people don’t have a real opinion on the laws. We cannot oppose the government and there’s no freedom of expression to demand our rights, so we protest with our brothers and sisters for justice and fighting the corruption that is covered up by powerful figures in the government. We demand freedom of media, more power to the people, jobs and economic reforms.”

The head of Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF), Sir Mike Wigston, met his Omani counterpart amid the protests on Tuesday morning and described him as a “great” friend. Around 24 RAF personnel are on loan to Oman, including pilots and engineers. Historically, Oman’s rulers have used aircraft to attack opposition groups.

Police tactics on Tuesday varied from place to place, with some protesters being given water bottles while others were pursued by riot police. A water cannon and armoured police trucks were seen inside Sohar, where protesters staged a sit-in at the site of the old Globe Roundabout, which was a centre of demonstrations during the Arab Spring.

Experts told Declassified the water cannon may have been produced by a South Korean arms company.

Andrew Smith from Campaign Against Arms Trade told Declassified his group was particularly concerned by videos showing Omani police firing tear gas.

“The regime in Oman avoids a lot of the international scrutiny it deserves, but these images show the repression that it uses to entrench its authoritarian rule,” he said.

“For decades now, the UK has armed and supported the Omani dictatorship, helping to secure its position regardless of the threats and abuses that are inflicted on opponents.

“As long as the UK and other arms-dealing governments are arming human rights abusers, there will always be a risk that those weapons are used in this way.

“The arms sales are also a sign of political support and often go hand-in-hand with an intense political and military collaboration – such as in the case of Oman where the UK has military bases and a long history of military training.

“There must be a full investigation into whether UK-made tear gas or other weapons have been used in the attacks, and an end to the shameful policy that allowed for them to be sold in the first place.”

Last month, Oman’s former foreign minister Yusuf bin Alawi predicted another Arab Spring could soon sweep the region “because nothing changed” since 2011.

The UK Foreign Office would not tell Declassified when Britain last provided public order training to Oman’s police. Instead, a spokeswoman said: “The UK urges all countries to uphold the rule of law. We are aware of demonstrations in Oman are monitoring the situation closely.” 

Under Oman’s Basic Law, any “associations whose activities are inimical to social order” are illegal. The UK Ministry of Defence did not respond to Declassified’s questions about whether British troops were assisting Oman’s response to the protests or whether General Carter still sat on the Sultan’s privy council.

Last night, Omani state television announced that the Sultan had ordered 2,000 full-time government jobs be temporarily opened, but protests look set to continue for a fourth day.