Thursday, 8th February 2018

New youth protests as Oman struggles to meet demand for jobs

Hundreds of young unemployed Omanis demonstrated on 22 January and 29 January to demand jobs. The first protests took place outside the Ministry of Manpower in Muscat, but then spread on 29 January to Salalah and Sur. Demonstrations have not yet been reported in the port city of Sohar, which was the hotbed of protests in February-April 2011 when an Omani version of the Arab Spring threatened to take root – a prospect that has upset the authorities ever since (GSN 896/3).

The government responded to the latest demonstrations by clamping down on foreign workers, in recognition of complaints that decades of ‘Omanisation’ have failed to significantly reduce the economy’s dependency on migrant labour. On 29 January, it announced a six-month ban on new visas for workers in 87 different areas in the private sector, including accounting, aviation, engineering, insurance, IT and the medical sector. Whether this creates more jobs or simply slows down overall economic activity remains to be seen. The government’s recent track record does not inspire confidence, as recent initiatives have yet to make any significant impact on the jobs market. While the Tanfeedh programme to stimulate entrepreneurship among younger, less well-connected Omanis seems likely to yield positive results from this year, progress in creating jobs across the economy remains slow (GSN 1,052/4).

In October, the Council of Ministers announced it would provide 25,000 jobs for Omanis in the public and private sector from December onward. Long-serving manpower minister Sheikh Abdullah Bin Nasser Bin Abdullah Al-Bakri presented a strategy on 8 December, when he announced that jobs would be created in the tourism, industry, logistics, free zones, mining, financial and knowledge sectors. However, Al-Bakri has yet to deliver on his promises, drawing significant criticism on social media, where Omanis have taken to expressing their disappointment by using the Twitter hashtag #Omanis without jobs. Others have been calling for his dismissal.

Unemployment has been getting worse over the past few years. According to International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates, overall joblessness stood at 16.9% of the total labour force in 2017, up from 16.5% in 2016 and 16.1% in 2015. The situation is far worse among young Omanis; the ILO estimated unemployment among 15-24 year olds at almost 49% last year.

All this is a result of the saturation of the public sector (which in 2009-14 created about 10,000 jobs a year, but is not now employing as austerity bites) and the limited participation of Omanis in a private sector where locals represent just 11.7% of the workforce. This figure has not changed significantly for more than a decade, despite multiple government promises to boost the numbers of Omanis taken on by private employers. The ambitious Vision 2020 strategy released in 1995 as the centrepiece of Sultan Qaboos Bin Said Al-Said’s development strategy, aimed to elevate the percentage of Omanis in the private sector to 70% by 2020. But employers still tend to favour expatriates, not least because of an educational mismatch and the Catch-22 of nationals lacking work experience.

The government made similar promises to create jobs and boost private sector participation after the 2011 protests, promising the creation of 50,000 jobs and a higher minimum wage (GSN 897/4). A similar number of jobs today could solve the unemployment problem. According to data released by the National Centre for Statistics and Information (NCSI) in January, some 43,858 Omanis were seeking work, more than 35,000 of whom are seeking their first job. But there are limits to what a fiscally-challenged government can do (GSN 1,052/1). Meanwhile, the NCSI records 1.85m expatriate workers in Oman, of whom almost 1.8m either work in the private sector or directly for families. With population growth of almost 4% per year, the numbers just don’t add up.

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