Saudi king orders more handouts, security boost

Reuters News
Posted: Mar 21, 2011 11:38 AM

RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi King Abdullah offered on Friday billions of dollars in handouts and boosted his security and religious police forces, opting for a mixture of carrot and stick rather than political reform to shield the world's top oil exporter from unrest rocking the Arab world.

The rare televised address to the nation was devoid of any concessions on political rights in a country where the public square is dominated by the Saudi royal family, political parties are banned and there is no elected parliament.

There was no word either on a much-anticipated reshuffle of a cabinet where the main posts are held by senior Saudi princes, some of whom have been in the job for over four decades.

"I was seriously disappointed to be honest. The least we expect is to establish a constitutional monarchy and freeing (political) prisoners," said Mohammed al-Qahtani, a prominent reformist. "Is this going to be enough for the people? I don't think so."

The aging king appeared to thank Saudis for not having taken to the streets in large numbers as pro-democracy protests sweep the Middle East and the conservative Gulf Arab region.

"I am so proud of you. Words are not enough to describe you," he said, addressing Saudis. "You are the safety valve of this nation and you struck at that which is wrong with the truth and at treachery with loyalty ..."

Almost no Saudis in major cities answered a Facebook call for protests on March 11, in the face of a massive security presence around the country, but minority Shi'ites have staged a number of street marches in the Eastern Province, where most of Saudi Arabia's oil fields are located.

After a brief speech, state television announced a series of decrees outlining a boost in welfare benefits, a minimum wage of 3,000 riyals ($800) for state employees, bonuses for public sector workers and students, and a drive to build new housing.

The numbers announced were large: 250 billion riyals ($66.7) bln would be spent on 500,000 housing units and 16 billion riyals ($4.3) on more medical facilities.

"There was a strong focus on increasing benefits for the unemployed and measures to monitor job creation as well as increasing minimum wage," said Monica Malik, chief economist at EFG-Hermes. "Perhaps the focus at the moment is to get some regional calm and then focus on other areas."

The king ordered the creation of 60,000 security jobs within the interior ministry, promised more money for the religious police and, in a sign Saudi's ruling Sunni elite will tolerate no dissent, said the media must respect the Sunni clerics, who oversee the application of Sharia law in the Islamic state.

Abdullah said new branches would be built around the country of the religious body headed by Grand Sheikh Abdul-Aziz Al al-Sheikh that is responsible for issuing official religious opinions, or fatwas. The decree said the move was part of efforts to promote "moderation" and fight extremism.

King Abdullah last month announced an economic package worth an estimated $37 billion in an initial move to ease social tensions. Friday's measures are significantly more costly, with plans for a building spree set to cost $66.7 billion alone.

Gulf Arab leaders are struggling to hold back an Internet-era generation of Arabs who appear less inclined to accept arguments appealing to religion and tradition to explain why ordinary citizens should be shut out of decision-making.

The decrees suggested the king was embracing increasingly conservative policies. Many comments on social media network Twitter were skeptical. "The bet for the future: the police and the preachers," wrote Mohammed Alahmari.

Riyadh sent 1,000 troops to Bahrain this week to help contain pro-democracy protests led by majority Shi'ite Muslims that the Sunni monarchy broke up by force on Wednesday.

Saudi Arabia fears the influence of non-Arab Shi'ite power Iran, which complained to the United Nations over the crackdown.

With more than $400 billion in foreign reserves, Saudi Arabia is in a more comfortable position than many neighbors to alleviate social pressures such as high youth unemployment.

But it was not clear if financial measures and boosting the security apparatus will silence critics within the kingdom.

Reformers had been hoping for a move toward democracy such as new elections to municipal councils, or even elections to the Shura Council -- an advisory body of appointees.

The kingdom has been slow to carry out reform promises in the conservative state since Abdullah came to power in 2005. Diplomats say the king faces opposition to political openings from some senior princes and clerics.

(Reporting by Andrew Hammond and Amena Bakr; Writing by Andrew Hammond and Crispian Balmer; Editing by Samia Nakhoul)