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Oman frees dozens of activists arrested during unemployment protests

Those released include Ibrahim al-Balushi, one of the leaders of the protest movement in Sohar
Riot police were deployed in Sohar last week to disperse protests over a lack of jobs in Oman (Screengrab)

Omani authorities released dozens of activists on Wednesday who had been arrested during last month's protests, activists and human rights groups said, as the Gulf state attempts to defuse tensions over unemployment.

Hundreds of job-seeking Omani men had demonstrated in several cities and towns, including the northern port city of Sohar and the southern tourist region of Salalah, two flashpoints of an unrest that poses the biggest challenge yet to the new ruler, Sultan Haitham bin Tariq.

The protests appear to have abated after security forces unleashed tear gas and arrested dozens of people, but the dissent suggests that Oman may be struggling in its efforts to contain state deficits and impose austerity measures.

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Activists said authorities released scores of protesters, including prominent activist Ibrahim al-Balushi, one of the leaders of the protest movement in Sohar.

Balushi, a human rights defender, was arrested outside his home on 26 May, after returning from work. 

He has been held in solitary confinement since his arrest, a joint statement from the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) and the Omani Association for Human Rights (OAHR) said.

"Around six people remain in jail, but we expect them to be released soon as well," Khalid Ibrahim, executive director of the GCHR, told Reuters.

Pledge to not protest

Most of the activists were held for several days in custody and were released after signing a written pledge to not take part in demonstrations or call for protests on social media, Ibrahim and two other released activists said. The activists declined to be named for fear of retaliation.

The Omani government was not immediately available for comment to Reuters.

Royal Oman Police said in a statement last week that it arrested "numbers" of people for several offences, including blocking the roads, seizing transport vehicles and destroying public and private properties.

Thirteen people were arrested in the northern region of al-Buraimi for starting fires in public squares and setting property alight, it added.

Authoritarian rule

Sohar and Salalah have been the epicentre of the recent unrest and were pivotal locations during the Arab Spring uprising in 2011, which faded after Oman's then ruler sacked the government, created thousands of jobs and distributed subsidies.

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Sultan Haitham, who acceded to the throne in January 2020, promised last week, on the third day of the demonstrations, to create 32,000 jobs and subsidise private companies that employ Omanis.

Since the oil price crash in 2014, Oman's debt to GDP ratio has leapt from around 15 percent in 2015 to 80 percent last year, while the government's plans to diversify revenue away from oil and to reduce spending on its bloated public sector have lagged.

The protests mark the first major challenge to Sultan Haitham, who succeeded longtime ruler Sultan Qaboos bin Said after half a century of authoritarian rule backed by the UK and US.