Oman clashes widen protest rumblings in Gulf

Published February 27, 2011

| Associated Press

Protests against the tight grip of Gulf rulers widened Sunday as riot police in Oman battled pro-democracy demonstrators in a deadly clash that sharply raised tensions in the region.

Tiny Bahrain is already in turmoil and giant Saudi Arabia is seeking to hold back calls for reforms.

The Gulf protests have shaken the once-comfortable command of various monarchs and sheiks. An ever deeper and sustained political revolt would thrust the Arab world's uprising into the heart of the region's oil riches and Washington's front-line allies against Iran.

The U.S. has long counted on the Gulf's rulers as reliable partners — particularly their common ground over concerns about Iran's efforts to expand its influence. No ruling system has given way, but cracks are evident.

Protesters are calling for the ouster of the Bahrain monarchy that hosts the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet. Marchers on Sunday streamed through the diplomatic zone in Bahrain's capital Manama, chanting slogans against the king.

Opposition forces, meanwhile, are showing resolve to challenge the absolute rule of dynasties in Saudi Arabia and now Oman, which shares with Iran control of the strategic oil tanker route through the Strait of Hormouz and is a mediator between Iran and the West.

In the Omani town of Sohar, security forces fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters demanding a greater voice in the country's affairs. At least one person was killed, police officials said, but other reports cited Omani media sources saying at least two died.

Oman's state-run news agency said protesters set cars and houses on fire, burned down a police station and set the governor's residence ablaze in the seaside town, about 120 miles (200 kilometers) northwest of the capital of Muscat.

It marked the first serious confrontation against protesters seeking to open up the ruling system of Sultan Qaboos bin Said, whose nation straddles the southeast corner of the Arabian peninsula and is co-guardian of the Strait of Hormuz. About 40 percent of the world's oil tanker traffic passes through the waterway at the mouth of the Gulf.

The sultan has already take bold steps to try to quell the unrest. On Saturday, he replaced six Cabinet members and last week boosted the minimum wage by more than 40 percent.

"We want new faces in the government and we have a long list of social reforms," said Habiba al-Hanay, a 45-year-old civil servant.

Omanis are not seeking to oust the country's ruler, al-Hanay said. "We just hope he will hear us and make changes," she added, noting that unemployment is high and education is poor in the country, which only has one university.

The tone appeared different in Bahrain, which has been gripped by nearly two weeks of protests and clashes that have left seven people dead.

Protesters streamed through Bahrain's diplomatic area and other sites Sunday, chanting slogans against the country's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and rejecting his appeals for talks to end the political crisis.

At least three processions paralyzed parts of the capital, Manama, and appeared to reflect a growing defiance of calls by Bahrain's rulers to hold talks.

"No dialogue until the regime is gone," marchers chanted as they moved through the highly protected zone of embassies and diplomatic compounds. No violence was reported.

Bahrain is among the most politically volatile nations in the Gulf — with majority Shiites claiming widespread discrimination by the Sunni rulers — and was the first in the region to be hit by the demands for reform sweeping the Arab world.

Some of the marchers in Bahrain claim that authorities still hold more than 200 political prisoners despite the release of about 100 political detainees last week.

Shiites, who account for about 70 percent of the country's 525,000 people, have long complained of discrimination and other abuses by the Sunni dynasty that has ruled for more than two centuries.

Bahrain's leaders, meanwhile, face pressure from other Gulf leaders to stand firm. Many Sunnis across the region fear that conceding significant power to Bahrain's Shiites could open the door for greater influence by Shiite powerhouse Iran.

In Saudi Arabia, more than 100 leading Saudi academics and activists have joined calls for Western-allied King Abdullah to enact sweeping reforms, including relinquishing many powers under a constitutional monarchy.

The statement seen on several Saudi websites Sunday reflects the undercurrent of tension that has simmered for years in the world's largest oil producer. While King Abdullah is seen as a reformer, the pace of those reforms has been slow as Saudi officials balance the need to push the country forward with the perennial pressure from hard-line clergy in the conservative nation.

Abdullah has tried to fend off the protest rumblings with a spending spree.

On Sunday, he ordered government sector workers employed under temporary contracts be offered permanent jobs with major benefits. It followed a slew of measures last week under a $36 billion package that includes interest free loans to Saudis for needs such as marriage, starting a business or buying furniture.

A key test may come next month. Social media sites have called for protest rallies in Saudi Arabia on March 11.

Demonstrations also are planned March 8 in Kuwait, one of the few Gulf states with a powerful elected parliament and a highly organized political opposition. Last month, Kuwait lawmakers nearly brought down the nation's prime minister with a no-confidence vote.

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Associated Press writers Barbara Surk in Dubai; Adam Schreck in Manama, Bahrain, and Tarek El-Tablawy in Cairo contributed to this report.

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