As protests near Saudi borders, king offers money

AP News
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Posted: Mar 18, 2011 8:34 AM
As protests near Saudi borders, king offers money

Saudi Arabia's king promised a multibillion dollar package of reforms, raises, cash, loans and apartments on Friday in what appeared to be the Arab world's most expensive attempt to appease residents inspired by the unrest that has swept two leaders from power.

He also announced 60,000 new jobs in the security forces _ a move that would employ huge numbers of otherwise jobless young men, while bolstering his kingdom's ability to snuff out protests.

The ailing 86-year-old King Abdullah, his soft voice trembling, rarely looked up from his notes in the speech broadcast live on Saudi television.

Though protests in Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia have been tiny and were swiftly quelled, the monarchy apparently fears they could escalate as have others around the Arab world _ particularly in the neighboring island of Bahrain, where Saudi troops lead a 1,500-strong Gulf military force against Shiite demonstrators.

Saudi demonstrators have mostly come from the Shiite-dominated eastern quarter of the kingdom. They share similar grievances as their Shiite brethren in the nearby island monarchy, and the Sunni powers fear their unrest will give an opening to Shiite Iran's military ambitions.

But the changes announced by Abdullah did not loosen the tribal monarchy's tight hold on power _ a key demand of Saudi opposition figures. He thanked residents and security forces and asked them to remember him in their prayers.

"You are the shields of this homeland and the beating hand of those who dare challenge its security and stability. May God bless you and your actions," the king said in the three-minute speech.

King Abdullah is popular, though critics protest the closed, autocratic system he heads.

News readers _ not the king _ read series of royal decrees promising a minimum wage increase, cash gifts and an anti-corruption drive.

The sweeteners include an additional two months' wages for all government workers, and two extra pension payments for university students. He raised the monthly minimum wage to $800 and a monthly pension of around $260 to the country's unemployed. The king set aside around $70 billion to build 500,000 low-income apartments. He promised millions more capital for the government's housing loan fund and raising the maximum loan for homes to around $130,000.

The king vowed to fight corruption and said he would contribute more money to the country's hospitals.