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Oman reshuffles cabinet as protesters block mall

MUSCAT (Reuters) - Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said reshuffled his cabinet on Saturday, changing six ministers in “the public’s interest,” one week after a rare protest calling for political reform.

The cabinet changes came as 500 protesters demanding democracy and jobs blocked traffic and broke street lights in the largest industrial city Sohar. Protests are rare in Oman, a small Gulf country where political parties are banned.

The state news agency ONA said Qaboos issued a decree naming Mohammed bin Nasser al-Khasibi as commerce and industry minister, Hamoud bin Faisal al-Bousaidi as civil service minister and Madiha bint Ahmed bin Nasser as education minister.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdullah al-Harthy, the outgoing civil service minister, was appointed to head the environment ministry in the Gulf Arab state, while Maqboul bin Ali bin Sultan will be the new transport minister, the agency said.

The ruler’s decree also named Mohsen bin Mohammed al-Sheikh as tourism minister and said the reshuffle was carried out in the “public’s interest,” without elaborating.

The reshuffle did not effect long-serving ministers, although two tourism and education ministries were headed by new figures.

Gulf Arab countries have stepped up measures to appease their populations following popular unrest that toppled the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt.

In Sohar, protesters blocked cars and shoppers at a mall in the city to demand that the Gulf Arab state’s elected advisory body be given legislative powers, witnesses said.

Protesters chanted: “We want long-term corrupt ministers to go!” “We want the Shura Council to have legislative powers!” “We want jobs!” and “We want democracy!”

“It has been going on for hours now. They are now at the Globe Roundabout blocking traffic,” said Mohammed Sumri, a resident. The police did not intervene, residents said.

The Shura Council, whose 84 members are elected by voters in 61 districts, is only advisory and has no legislative powers.

Last week, about 300 people demanded political reforms and better pay in a peaceful protest in the capital Muscat as unrest in other Middle East countries and North Africa turned increasingly violent.

In mid-February, the sultanate increased the salary for national workers in the private sector by 43 percent to $520 per month.

There is no official unemployment rate, but a CIA estimate from 2004 put the rate then at about 15 percent.

Reporting by Saleh Al-Shaibany; editing by Elizabeth Piper