Saudi Arabia's monarchy is concerned that small protests could escalate into bigger demonstrations [AFP]

Saudi Arabia's monarch will announce a government reshuffle, an anti-corruption drive and a promise to increase food subsidies to combat rising prices in an address to the nation, diplomats have said.

King Abdullah's speech - his first address since unrest began sweeping the Arab world - is expected after midday Muslim prayers on Friday, the state news agency reported.

The speech by the ailing 86-year-old monarch comes after several small demonstrations in the oil-rich kingdom. The monarchy could be worried about protests escalating into more intense gatherings.

Saudi diplomats, speaking to the Associated Press news agency on condition of anonymity, said the king plans to replace the ministers of defence, higher education and religious affairs.

The defence minister is ailing, while intellectuals have criticised the minister of higher education for dumping
billions on expensive projects that they said produced few results.

The diplomats said the king would not replace the head of the all-important oil ministry.

Many Saudis have seen little benefit from their country's oil wealth.

Alleviating pressures

With more than $400bn in foreign reserves, Saudi Arabia is in a more comfortable position than other Arab
countries to alleviate any social pressures such as high youth unemployment.

The diplomats said that the king will promise to try and resolve the country's corruption and persistent high unemployment.

He will increase subsidies for increasing food basics, they said, and he will also deal with Saudi residents who lost their savings in a 2006 stock market crash, but it was not immediately clear what kind of action he would take.

The king will cancel some fees for government services and announce development projects in health and education, the diplomats said.

Although the new changes will not loosen the monarchy's tight hold on power, the king will promise moves that will strengthen dialogue, diplomats said.

King Abdullah is widely popular in Saudi Arabia, though critics protest the closed, autocratic system he heads.
There are pockets of dissent in the absolute monarchy, which has no elected parliament.

Saudi Arabia, a key US ally, has mostly avoided the wide unrest that toppled rulers in Egypt and Tunisia and spread to other Gulf countries.

On Monday, armed forces from the country rolled into neighbouring Bahrain to help the government in Manama deal with pro-democracy protesters.

Source: Agencies