Published March 16, 2011
MUSCAT, Oman – The highest religious authority in the Persian Gulf kingdom of Oman has pushed back against the government's efforts to boost tourism by calling for a nationwide alcohol ban and strict monitoring of health clubs in this Muslim country.
Sheik Ahmed bin Hamad al-Khalili told state television Tuesday that "drunk people are unproductive people who sink into vice."
Oman, which is ruled by a family dynasty, has seen sporadic protests inspired by the uprisings across the Arab world, mostly by young job seekers and others calling for political reform.
Sultan Qaboos bin Said, the country's ruler, responded this week by granting lawmaking powers to officials outside the royal family — the boldest effort yet to stop the unrest from spreading. He has also changed the Cabinet and promised thousands of civil service jobs.
Oman, which shares control of the Gulf waterway that carries 40 percent of the world's oil tanker traffic, has aggressively expanded its economic base in recent decades with tourism, oil and trade while quietly building military ties with Washington.
The mufti's call for a nationwide alcohol ban appeared to represent a pushback from religious leaders.
Al-Khalili said it's not in the interest of the country's leader to rule a "drunken people," but a "rational people." The cleric denounced gyms and health clubs as "dens of vice" that should be abolished or closely watched to prevent abuse.
Alcohol is only available in Oman in four and five star hotels. Omani gyms and health clubs employ foreign women, especially as masseuses, which has sparked rumors of practices considered inappropriate in this conservative society.
On Wednesday, about 300 security guards demonstrated in the capital Muscat, calling for better wages and weekends off. They blocked traffic on a downtown street before the inspector general for police and customs addressed them, saying he would study their demands. The protesters left and police did not intervene.
Oman's protests are limited compared with the unrest in Gulf ally Bahrain, where demonstrators have increasingly called for toppling the monarchy. But Oman and Bahrain have been promised $10 billion each in aid from the Gulf Cooperation Council in attempts to answer demands for more job opportunities and more state aid.