A group of suspected extremists were arrested in Oman over a period of several days on charges of planning bomb attacks at the Muscat festival which, this year, coincided with the Eid al-Adha holiday that began on January 21. The arrests were apparently triggered by the discovery of an arms shipment from neighboring Yemen, when a truck carrying them was involved in an accident. Among the detainees were professors from Sultan Qaboos University and the Theology College, many of them known to be fundamentalists. They are believed to have targeted the Muscat festival (a commercial and cultural event) on the grounds of its impiety. Early media rumors of a sweep of up to 300 were later reduced to some 30 suspects detained.
The Omani government is remaining tight-lipped. The first official statement on the event — an interview with the Information Minister Hamad al-Rashidi, published in the January 31 editions of the Arabic language dailies Al-Watan and Oman al-Yawm — was an exercise in stonewalling. Al-Rashidi revealed only that the number, identity and reasons for the arrests were an “internal matter,” and that the detainees had attempted to form an organization aimed at “tampering with the security of the state” (www.alwatan.com and www.omandaily.com).
The particular conditions of Oman make this a development worthy of attention. Relatively favorable economic conditions have cushioned the government from major criticisms of the monarchist system, and the religious complexion of 75 percent of its inhabitants, as Ibadi Muslims (an sect distinct from the Sunni and Shi’a), make it unpromising territory for radicalization steered by Sunni groups such as al-Qaeda. So the statement that the arrestees are of the majority Ibadi denomination has, therefore, more ominous implications for the long term. It means that the appeal of fundamental, political interpretations of Islam are gaining currency, irrespective of sect, and are elaborating native formulae. That the detainees include high-ranking intellectuals and preachers, government employees and (according to al-Hayat) military officials, testifies to the level of penetration of this current.
This has the potential to present a threat to U.S. and other Western citizens in what has until now been one of the region’s most western-friendly states. The present sweep mirrors a similar incident in 1994 when Omani authorities detained, and then released, 200 alleged extremists, charged with membership of a secret, violent group attempting to destabilize the country. More recently, last September a British citizen was seriously injured from a shot to the neck, making him the fourth westerner to be involved in shooting incidents in Oman in less than 12 months. It is highly likely that the stresses of the Iraq conflict, the Omani government’s highly unpopular support for Washington, and the overt U.S. military and naval presence in the Sultanate, will provide the fuel for a change for the worse.