Even the normally placid Sultanate of Oman has been caught up in the Arab world's recent wave of protest and rebellion. Though the protests have been largely peaceful and the police have generally taken a hands-off approach, there was some violence in the industrial city of Sohar, with at least one protester killed and several buildings burned.
What's it about? Unlike in Egypt, Bahrain, Lybia, Yemen or Syria, it's not about major political change; the benevolent Sultan is revered here to the point of idolatry. No, the protesters say it's the economy. They cite absurd unemployment levels-- as high as 30%, low wages and high prices. In short, they are demanding that the government force businesses to hire Omanis instead of low-wage foreign workers and drastically raise the minimum wage. And they want lower prices. They don't seem to see the inherent contradictions here.
There's also an ethical issue. While I'm all for fair, liveable wages, I'm also enough of an egalitarian to be appalled at the arrogance of these demands. At this time, an Omani working for minimum wage at, say, a fast-food restaurant makes two and a half times what his Indian or Filipino colleagues earn-- with the same work, same hours, and much better benefits. You might wonder why, in this case, McDonald's, Howard Johnson's or Pizza Hut would hire much more expensive Omani workers. The answer is that, through the Ministy of Labor's "Omanization" program, employers are forced to have a 30-50% Omani workforce. Without this, unemployment would be more well over 50%.
The protesters are now demanding that that Omani worker be paid FIVE times what his foreign colleagues make. How he could look his co-workers in the face is beyond me.
To my internationalist mind, the obvious solution would be to raise the minimum wage for everyone. If foreign workers are no longer much cheaper to employ, then Omani applicants will instantly become more attractive-- assuming, of course, that they have the necessary basic skills. Which brings me to my next point....
Not to be outdone, university students are now protesting for lower entrance exam requirements, fewer required credit hours for graduation, and reducing the score for a passing course grade from 60 to 50. Oh, and they also want guaranteed jobs upon graduation. Think you'll be retaining the services of an Omani physician, architect or engineer anytime soon?
The most astonishing part of it all is that Omanis already live a stunningly privileged life, supported by the country's oil reserves. Salaries may be low by Western standards-- about the same as in Taiwan or South Korea-- but the social sevices offered are lavish and there's no income tax. This is the only country I've seen where a taxi driver or store clerk can have a comfortable life-- including a big house and a couple of cars-- with five or more children, and maybe multiple wives.
But the oil is already diminishing, and will run out completely in forty years at most. A country that turns out substandard scientists, scholars and workers won't find another source of wealth anytime soon. The wakeup call, when it comes, is going to be a harsh one.