Pressing ahead with reforms, triggered by the recent public demonstrations demanding jobs, higher wages and an end to corruption that rocked the country, Oman is embarking on a major move to decentralise power.
As a first step in that direction, His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said has ordered studies to set up governorates in all regions of the country. He also announced the establishment of a second government university and a new Islamic bank, and granted permission for banks to open more branches if they desired.
Meanwhile, labour authorities said nearly 33,500 citizens have so far been hired by the public and private sectors since Sultan Qaboos ordered the creation of 50,000 jobs in February.
The Omani monarch gave the instructions to carry out feasibility studies for the establishment of governorates in all regions during a cabinet meeting at Hisn Al Shumoukh in Manah on Monday. All the governorates will have a municipal council with authority to identify local needs and suggest and supervise projects.
Sources said the step was meant to speed up development programmes, provide better government services to citizens and "give the administrative importance deserved by all regions in the sultanate."
Oman is divided into four governorates - Muscat, Dhofar, Musandam and Buraimi, and five regions - Batinah, Dhahirah, Dhakhliyah, Sharqiyah and Wusta. Together they consist of 61 wilayats or districts.
At Monday's cabinet meeting, the Omani monarch dwelt at length on the issue of education, underlining the importance of developing the sector to "meet the aspirations of this country towards progress." He ordered the Council of Ministers to initiate work to set up a "carefully planned" public university focusing on science.
At present, Sultan Qaboos University is the only state-run university in Oman, although several private universities function in the country and more are in the process of being set up.
Sultan Qaboos also underlined the need to support training programmes and expand the country's colleges of technology so that "they can open up new horizons for Omanis to join the workforce which will have a constructive impact on them and will reflect positively on their standards of living."
More and affordable avenues for higher education was among the main demands of the protesters who have been staging sit-ins and demonstrations throughout the country, notably in Sohar, Muscat and Salalah, since February.
Sultan Qaboos on Monday also stressed the role of the banking sector, granting permission to found an Islamic bank in the country and allowing banks to open new branches if they wished so. Commercial banks in the sultanate currently have to follow strict Central Bank of Oman (CBO) guidelines to open new offices. The Omani ruler called for a true partnership between the public and private sectors for "pushing the economic and social development wheel in the sultanate."
The Manpower Ministry, in the meantime, announced that 33,447 people have found jobs in the government and in private establishments as part of the national drive to employ 50,000 people. A senior ministry official said efforts were under way to appoint another 19,864.
Salim bin Nusair Al Hadhrami, Director-general of Planning and Development, said the private sector had so far absorbed 13,189 of its quota of 15,000 job-seekers. Those employed included skilled and unskilled workers, specialists and technicians, he added.
Explaining difficulties faced by the authorities in employing nationals, he pointed out that some applicants insisted on government jobs, expressing a distinct dislike for working in private firms. Some others were bent on jobs in certain private companies, particularly those operating in the oil and gas sector, Hadhrami said.
Also, several candidates demand employment in specific areas such as the Port of Sohar, while some apply for jobs for which they are not qualified. He said the ministry had laid down a mechanism to recruit people, giving priority to those who were already on its register.
Those who registered or updated their files during March andApril "have to wait for their turn," he added.