RIYADH // A jubilant nation welcomed King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz home yesterday from a three-month absence and marked the occasion with a wide-ranging package of financial benefits for his subjects.
King Abdullah ordered that 40 billion riyals (Dh39bn) be pumped into the country's development fund, which provides interest-free loans to Saudis who want to build homes, get married or start small businesses.
The king's Saudi Arabian Airlines jet, its yellow-and-white body emblazoned with the Saudi flag and the supplication "God Bless You" touched down shortly before 2pm.
The monarch, who is around 87, underwent back surgery in the United States in November. he disembarked into an elevator that brought him to the ground, where he transferred to a wheelchair amid a crowd of well-wishers.
The king arrives amid widespread concern among Saudis about how the transformative upheavals in other Arab states might impact the kingdom. Many Saudis say they are also worried about succession, wondering who will follow King Abdullah and his heir, Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, who also is in his 80s and suffering from ill health.
Indeed, King Abdullah must not only reassure his own subjects, but also a wider audience, about the future course of the region, the English-language daily, Arab News, said in an editorial today:
"The return of the king, and the knowledge that his state of health is better [and that he is] ready to take up again the full reins of government, is cause for great contentment and real happiness across Saudi Arabia," it stated. "The king is … the assurance of orderly progress, not just in Saudi Arabia or the GCC, but in the Arab world as a whole … through these heady but worrying and dangerous times."
One of the king's top priorities will be to direct Saudi Arabia's response to the unprecedented calls for political reform in neighbouring Bahrain, where protesters have demanded an end to the monarchy.
Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa bin Khalifa was among those who greeted King Abdullah at the airport. The two will undoubtedly confer while he is in Riyadh on how the Bahraini government should handle what is still a sensitive and tense situation on the island state.
The protesters are overwhelmingly Shiite, as they make up around 70 per cent of Bahrain's population. The Bahraini royal family is Sunni Muslim. Saudi Arabia has two fears. One is that its arch foe, Shiite Iran, may interfere in Bahrain's domestic affairs. The other is that a successful Shiite protest movement in Bahrain might encourage Saudi Arabia's Shiite minority to remonstrate for reforms here.
A large contingent of white-thobed men, gathered on several large carpets just outside the terminal at Riyadh airport, greeted King Abdullah by performing the traditional Saudi sword dance, the ardah. A throng of royal family members, businessmen and diplomats were at the airport to welcome the king. Saudi military jets screeched overhead in an aerial salute.
As the king made his way home, the airport road was lined with young men and women, grouped separately, waving Saudi flags and banners of welcome. Men on horseback dotted one stretch of the road.
The government announced that schools, universities and government offices would be closed on Saturday, the first work day after the week-end, in honour of the king's safe return.
About an hour before the king arrived from Casablanca, where he has been convalescing for a month, Saudi television read out his royal decree that listed the financial aids to be disbursed.
They included a 15 per cent increase in government employees' salaries, more funds for housing loans, and the extension of state scholarships to Saudi students abroad who had been paying their own bills. The benefits also include more financial aid to the unemployed and larger social welfare payments to poor families.
The king also ordered the release of prisoners detained for not paying debts, which the government will now pay off. He also ordered sports clubs and literary clubs to receive state aid.
The financial assistance is likely to be welcomed by all Saudis, though the lack of any initiative to deal with corruption and unemployment, as well as political reforms, is likely to disappoint the pro-reform segment of Saudi society.
"Bitterly, bitterly disappointed," tweeted blogger Ahmed Al Omran. "I was thinking much bigger: constitution, elections, civil society."