March 29, 2011 / 9:44 AM / 8 years ago

Oman army clears roadblocks in Sohar pay protest

* Private sector workers make up fifth of workforce

* Sultan ordered civil servant pay increases this month

SOHAR, Oman, March 29 (Reuters) - The Omani army has cleared roadblocks erected by people protesting over private sector pay at two roundabouts in the industrial city of Sohar, protesters and military said on Tuesday.

“The military asked us to protest peacefully and to not block the road or damage properties,” said Mohammed Ali al-Harrasi, one of several dozen protesters who had moved to the side of a main highway.

He said the army had arrested several protesters on Monday evening but had not banned them from the roundabouts.

“The military have not asked us to move our tents from the roundabout. We might go back at night,” he said.

A soldier said the protesters had been using heavy goods vehicles to block roads in an escalation of their campaign for better wages in the private sector in Oman, a normally tranquil Gulf Arab state that produces 800,000 barrels of oil a day.

Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who has ruled Oman for 40 years, ordered a pay rise this month for civil servants and government pensioners in a move to calm protests for better wages and political rights that began in Sohar in late February. At least one protester has been killed in clashes with police.

Private sector workers who make up about 19 percent of workers in Oman, which maintains close ties with both the United States and Iran, have said this means a month of protests have benefited only state employees and not them.

They say they are excluded from benefits the sultan has been using to coax Omanis off the streets, as workers at public and private companies continue to stage sit-ins and strikes over wages, including at two oil refineries.

Sultan Qaboos has also promised to cede some legislative powers to the partially elected Oman Council, which has previously only acted as an advisory body. At present, only the sultan and his cabinet can make laws. No further information has been given as to when powers would be transferred.

Wealthy Gulf Arab oil producers launched a $20 billion aid package this month for their less prosperous neighbours Oman and Bahrain — a job-generating measure that should enable the two countries to upgrade their housing and infrastructure. (Reporting by Saleh al-Shaibany; writing by Andrew Hammond; Editing by Matthew Jones)

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