My latest for the BBC radio programme From Our Own Correspondent, from Oman, looking at issues of protest, self-censorship and social media. Audio here (my bit begins around 11’25”). Transcript as BBC news feature here.
I woke to the roar of total silence. Issa, an Omani bedouin of the Al-Maashani tribe, made tea as the orange-lit theatrics of sunrise began behind us. It was just him, me and the soundless dunes of the Empty Quarter.
Dinner had been Issa’s too – chopped camel meat fried in camel fat, chewy and delicious, washed down with ginger tea. Afterwards, we’d chit-chatted companionably in the dark, staring upwards as the Milky Way slid across a pinprick sky like the arch above Wembley Stadium.
We were camped in what the explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes had called “a place of wind and spiders”. In his day it was known as Fasad, or “Decay”. The spot had since been euphemistically renamed Al-Hashman, meaning “Wholesome” – but with its broken walls and foully undrinkable spring water, that struck me as an oddly mirthless piece of spin.
There’s a lot of that in Oman these days, as the country paddles ever harder to maintain its trademark swan-like serenity. The Arab Spring has come knocking. Last month a local journalist was jailed, accused of slander – the most high-profile of, so far, 42 court cases related to issues of public protest.
Like most of its neighbours, Oman saw street protests last year and earlier this year – though protesters were calling mainly for salary increases and lower living costs, rather than revolutionary overthrow.
The result, unusually, was a flurry of reforms. Oman’s autocratic ruler, Sultan Qaboos, created tens of thousands of new government jobs, raised the minimum wage and introduced cost of living allowances for public sector workers.
He also reshuffled his cabinet three times in twelve months, purging unpopular ministers.
This nimble response took the wind out of protesters’ sails. In the southern port city of Salalah, a local business leader chuckled. “What the people wanted, they got,” he told me. “There’s nothing to protest about anymore.”
But not everyone agrees. Omanis I talked to expressed concern that the sultan’s populist initiatives are merely an attempt to postpone genuine structural reforms. They might keep people quiet for five years, even ten – but then what?
And like the failed dictators of Egypt, Libya and Syria, Qaboos has personally identified himself with the Omani state. He is childless but has named no heir. It is illegal to insult him – but what counts as an insult is open to interpretation.
A man who told me, “Sultan Qaboos is thinking like it’s the 1980s,” refused – perhaps wisely – to give me his name.
Over ice-cream sundaes in Salalah, I talked with Abdullah Al-Amiri, a systems analyst.
“Change is already affecting this country in healthy ways,” he said. “But it is going very slowly.”
For Abdullah one key marker is social media. From desert herders to fashionable young students, almost everyone you meet is on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp – or all three.
The ubiquity of social media, and the impossibility of controlling them, is causing panic. The government has been busy all summer prosecuting – and jailing – dozens of online activists.
Yet the red lines aren’t fixed. Instead, it’s all about self-censorship. Lawyer Riyadh Al-Balushi told me the law is ambiguous. “The barriers to freedom of expression are not legal,” he said. “They are internal.”
Oman’s coastal capital Muscat lines up like sugar cubes on a narrow shelf. It is seductively calm: holidaymakers and Western expats move from villas and malls to the glittering new opera house freely, without hindrance.
But wait at the coffeeshops after dark to talk to some of Muscat’s bloggers and tweeters, and a different picture emerges, of tell-tale clicks on the line during phone conversations, of unusual activity on Facebook pages.
One prolific Twitter user, a young Omani woman in a headscarf, gives me an old-fashioned look. “Of course the government is reading my tweets,” she says.
The country’s most popular political website is Sabla, a chatroom allowed to operate as a safety valve. Omanis joke that the first thing new ministers do is log onto Sabla to see what people are saying about them.
As a local journalist explained, the authorities will generally let whatever is said in English pass. But they care deeply about what is said in Arabic – to the point of jailing dissenters.
Yet showing one face to the neighbours and another to the world is a strategy that rings hollow for Oman’s globally connected youth, who are easily able to join the dots for themselves.
It seems only a matter of time before Omanis start using social media to hold the government to account.
As one young Omani told me, “Everyone loves Sultan Qaboos – but older people love him more.”
With the monarch about to turn 72, but almost three-quarters of his population under the age of 25, Oman’s generation game is coming to a head.