|The Saudi monarch praised security forces for blocking protests as he unveiled unprecedented handouts [AFP]|
Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah has announced unprecedented economic benefits worth tens of billions of dollars and warned against any attempt to undermine the kingdom.
Friday’s announcement, thought to be aimed at appeasing Saudis calling for Egypt-style protests that forced the president out of power, came as unrest rocked Gulf countries where protesters are demanding political reforms.
In a speech broadcast live on Saudi television, the ageing Abdullah – who returned home in February after months of treatment in a New York clinic – read the announcement in a soft trembling voice and rarely looked up from his notes.
The numbers announced were large: $66.7bn would be spent on 500,000 housing units and $4.3bn on more medical facilities.
The sweeteners also include an additional two months’ wages for all government workers and two extra payments for university students worth around $500.
King Abdullah raised the monthly minimum wage to $800 and announced a monthly payment of around $260 to the country’s unemployed.
Unemployment in the world’s biggest crude exporter was 10.5 per cent last year, but was as high as 30 per cent in the 20-29 age group with an estimated 450,000 Saudi citizens without jobs.
The monarch promised millions more capital for the government’s housing loan fund and raised the maximum loan for homes to around $130,000.
He also praised security forces for blocking protests planned by the country’s Shia minority who complain of marginalisation, saying: “You are the hitting hand against whoever considers undermining the nation’s security and stability.”
Abdullah also appeared to thank Saudis for not having taken to the streets in large numbers, ignoring calls on social media sites.
“I am so proud of you. Words are not enough to describe you,” he said. “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 and the kingdom deployed security forces in large numbers to deal with those who dared venture on the streets.
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 neighbouring island of Bahrain, where Saudi troops lead a 1,500-strong Gulf military force against Shia demonstrators.
Saudi protesters have mostly come from the Shia-dominated eastern quarter of the kingdom. They share similar grievances as their Shia brethren in Bahrain, and the Sunni powers fear their unrest will give an opening for Shia Iran to expand its influence on the Arab side of the Gulf.
The king vowed to fight corruption by setting up a new body answerable directly to him. He promised billions for the health sector – announcing new research centres around the country, homes for medics and thousands of new hospital beds.
He also promised an extra $40m for private hospitals.
But the changes announced by Abdullah did not loosen the tribal monarchy’s tight hold on power – a key demand of Saudi opposition figures – and were viewed by some as cosmetic.
“I was seriously disappointed to be honest,” said Mohammed al-Qahtani, a prominent reformist.
“The least we expect is to establish a constitutional monarchy and freeing [political] prisoners. Is this going to be enough for the people? I don’t think so.”
The gesture also overlooked requests by intellectuals to release political prisoners and reform the country’s decision-making process.
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.
Saudi Arabia is dominated by the Saudi royal family, political parties are banned and there is no elected parliament.