Brian Whitaker writes for The Guardian:
Sultan Qaboos, Oman's absolute ruler, is a man of culture. He plays the organ and the lute, composes music and has his own highly regarded symphony orchestra. The vulgarity of Dubai and the brutality of Iran are simply not his style.
He is also a long-standing friend of the west, and of Britain in particular. In his younger days he served in the British army and later donated sports pavilions bearing his name to his old college, Sandhurst, and the RAF officers' college, Cranwell.
With a tiny population (no more than 3 million) and reasonable amounts of oil, Oman is – or has been until recently --- a fairly prosperous place.
All this results in Oman and its sultan generally getting a sympathetic press. "I have never encountered a place in the Arab world so well-governed as Oman, and in such a quiet and understated way," Robert Kaplan wrote the other day in an article for Foreign Policy headed "Oman's renaissance man".
Last weekend, though, overshadowed by events in Libya, there were disturbances in Sohar (Oman's second city) along with more peaceful demonstrations elsewhere in the country. Protesters' complaints were the familiar ones heard these days in most of the Arab countries: government corruption, cronyism and youth unemployment.
Oman has an exceptionally young population --- 43% are under the age of 15 – and even those who buy the line that Oman is well governed recognise that the authorities face an uphill struggle in providing jobs. "The problem is evolving faster than they can provide solutions," one person who is familiar with the country (and asked not to be identified) told me this week.
But there's another problem too. Even if Qaboos is a Britain-friendly, music-loving ruler with benevolent intentions, he is none the less a despot. He doesn't tolerate criticism and his citizens have very few rights. They can't, for instance, hold a public meeting without the government's approval. Anyone who wants to set up a non-governmental organisation of any kind needs a licence. To get it, they have to demonstrate that the organisation is "for legitimate objectives" and not "inimical to the social order". On average, that takes two years --- assuming permission is granted at all.
Here are a few other things, not from the Sultan's harshest critics but from his friends in Washington, courtesy of the State Department's latest human rights report:
• The law prohibits criticism of the sultan in any form or medium.
• The law does not provide citizens with the right to change their government.
• The sultan retains ultimate authority on all foreign and domestic issues.
• Public officials are not subject to financial disclosure laws.
• Police do not need search warrants in order to enter people's homes.
• Libel laws and concerns for national security have been used to suppress criticism of government figures and politically objectionable views.
• Publication of books is limited and the government restricts their importation and distribution, as with other media products.
And here are some more, from Reporters Without Borders:
• The state decides who can or cannot be a journalist and this permission can be withdrawn at any time
• Censorship and self-censorship are a constant factor.
• Access to news and information can be problematic: journalists have to be content with news compiled by the official news agency on some issues
• Through a decree by the sultan, the government has now extended its control over the media to blogs and other websites.
Merely mentioning the existence of such restrictions can land you in trouble. Two years ago, a web publisher was fined and given a suspended jail sentence for revealing that a supposedly live TV programme was actually pre-recorded in order to eliminate any criticisms of the government.
Because of this, it is very difficult to judge what Omanis really think of their sultan. His supporters tend to express their devotion in exaggeratedly fulsome terms: "His Majesty --- gift of God to residents of Oman", "We salute His Majesty's wise leadership" and "I would be willing to lay out my life on the line for him". Of course, there were people saying similar things about President Ben Ali in Tunisia until just a few days before he fled and in Libya we have Muammar Gaddafi's own word that all his people love him.
Meanwhile, those who are more critical of Qaboos have been nervous about sticking their necks out – though possibly, encouraged by events in other parts of the region, they are now losing that fear.
Faced with so many restrictions, Omanis have sometimes resorted to unconventional methods for expressing their views. Writing about Gulf rulers in 2001, Dale Eickelman observed: "Only in Oman has the occasional donkey...been used as a mobile billboard to express anti-regime sentiments. There is no way in which police can maintain dignity in seizing and destroying a donkey on whose flank a political message has been inscribed."
In a way, Robert Kaplan is right about Sultan Qaboos being a "renaissance man". He is a despot with class, and his true place is in the 15th century with the Medicis and the Borgias, not 2011.