MUSCAT (Reuters) - Omanis vote in their first municipal election on Saturday, a modest opening apparently designed to stem discontent about graft and lack of jobs in what is normally one of the Arab world’s quietest corners.
Stability in the small Gulf oil producer and U.S. ally is important because it sits opposite Iran on the Strait of Hormuz, the conduit for almost a fifth of petroleum traded worldwide.
One of the oldest Arab states and under absolute rule by Sultan Qaboos for 42 years, Oman experienced unrest inspired by Arab uprisings elsewhere early last year, with several strikes and protests against unemployment and corruption.
The government swiftly promised to create thousands of jobs, announced plans for municipal polls and granted the sultanate’s only elected body, the Shura Council, some legislative power.
According to government figures, Oman created more than 52,000 public sector jobs between January and October this year, as well as at least 22,000 in the private sector.
An official said the number of registered unemployed fell to 17,230 at the end of October 2012 from 68,007 a year earlier.
But the municipal polls appear to be drawing scant attention among the native population of about two million.
Although Muscat’s normally staid streets have been plastered with posters of candidates promising to fix roads or build parking lots, many Omanis say the local vote is meaningless because municipal councils hold little or no power.
“I don’t think these guys will make any significant changes because they will not be politicians and can’t make changes where needed,” said Malik al-Malki, a civil servant.
“They are not like the Shura Council members, who can make enough noises to create jobs for our children.”
The Shura Council has been elected regularly since 1991 by a limited pool of voters. Universal suffrage was adopted in 2003.
Hundreds of people were arrested in protests in 2011, when two people died and more than 100 were wounded in clashes with security forces. Most of those detained were later pardoned.
Strikes in the critical oil industry occurred in May 2012, when hundreds contracted to firms working with the main state oil company downed tools to demand wage hikes. The company, Petrol Development Oman, said the dispute was largely over by June 2 and most of the strikers returned to work.
Up to 200 young Omanis demonstrated in the industrial town of Sohar on June 30 with placards demanding jobs, better living conditions and an end to corruption.
After last year’s protests, Sultan Qaboos decreed that at least seven portfolios in his 28-strong cabinet must be held by Shura Council members. Nine serve in the present cabinet.
The sultan’s constitutional amendment also gave the council the right to approve or reject draft laws. But the final say remains with Qaboos, who wields much of the state’s power.
Of the 1,475 candidates vying for 192 municipal council seats, fewer than 50 are women, reflecting a belief among some Omani women that men do not want to see them in public office.
“Men vote for themselves and ask their wives and daughters to vote for male candidates,” said Salha al-Mudathir, a businesswoman who owns a chain of boutique shops.
Writing by Mahmoud Habboush; Reporting by Saleh Al-Shaibany; Editing by William Maclean and Alistair Lyon