By Lisa Barrington and Davide Barbuscia
DUBAI (Reuters) - Citizens of Oman took the streets on Wednesday for a fourth day of demonstrations, braving a heavy security presence to demand that the country's ruler follow through on promises to create thousands of jobs.
Hundreds of Omani men demonstrated in the northern port city of Sohar, a focal point of protests that pose the biggest challenge yet to new ruler Sultan Haitham, social media postings showed.
One activist told Reuters that protesters temporarily stopped traffic on a main road and clashed with security forces. The British-based Omani Centre for Human Rights tweeted reports of police firing tear gas, reports that Reuters could not confirm.
State news agency ONA published an unsourced statement saying attacks on public property contradict Omani norms and that police "fulfilled their duty to maintain public order and safety without infringing on freedoms".
Unemployment was a main driver behind Arab Spring-like protests in Oman in 2011 that subsided after the then ruler sacked the government, created thousands of jobs and gave money to the unemployed.
Sultan Haitham on Tuesday gave new directives to create up to 32,000 full and part-time government jobs.
But Haitham, who assumed power in January 2020 following the 50-year reign of the late Sultan Qaboos, has been constrained by the impact of low oil prices and COVID-19 on the economy of the relatively small energy producer which has high levels of debt.
He has enacted long-delayed reforms to ease pressure on state finances, including introducing value-added tax.
"We want jobs to support our families and build our futures. These are basic rights but we have been deprived of them," one man said in video footage on Tuesday evening in Sohar published on Twitter by private Omani radio station Hala FM.
"They make promises but there is nothing," he said.
Another man in the video, also not identified by name, lamented changes in Sohar's social fabric in the past two decades as it transformed into an industrial zone.
"The country puts expats ahead of us," he said.
Protests were reported in several other towns this week.
"We see little prospect of unemployment coming down meaningfully in the coming months," said Amir Khan, senior economist at Saudi National Bank, citing the government's constrained ability to ramp up public expenditure.
Khan said the protests once again raise the prospect of Oman turning to wealthy Gulf neighbours, which Muscat said last year it was in talks with for financial support.
(Reporting by Lisa Barrington and Davide Barbuscia; Editing by David Gregorio)