x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Saudi king unveils massive spending package

In a widely anticipated address to the nation, delivered on a day of unprecedented violence in Yemen as well as continuing crises in Bahrain and Libya, the monarch also made clear that political reforms are not on the Saudi royal agenda. Even a long expected cabinet shuffle did not occur.

RIYADH // King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz unveiled yesterday a host of new economic initiatives for Saudi citizens - the second such package in a month - along with measures to strengthen the Saudi religious establishment, military and security forces.

In a widely anticipated address to the nation, delivered on a day of unprecedented violence in Yemen as well as continuing crises in Bahrain and Libya, the monarch also made clear that political reforms are not on the Saudi royal agenda. Even a long expected cabinet shuffle did not occur.

Corruption, one of the most pervasive complaints of Saudis, was addressed by the king who created a high-level anti-corruption commission to report directly to his office.

At the same time, however, the Saudi media, which has become a forum for vigorous debate over clerical rulings, was ordered to cease criticising religious figures under pain of prosecution.

Reaction to the multifaceted roster of initiatives was divided. Some Saudis praised the king's generosity. Others expressed disappointment at the absence of political and economic reform, and at the apparent reinforcing of the military and religious sectors. Sceptics noted that past promises to root out graft had not been kept.

"For the people in Saudi Arabia, [the package] is excellent," said the political analyst Abdullah al Shammary. "But for the elite, they still think about real political and economic reforms."

Mohammad al Qahtani, a human and political rights activist in Riyadh, said he was disappointed. "I had hoped at a bare minimum for a cabinet reshuffle and the release of political prisoners." The rulers, he said, "think it's all about finances and money, but people are yearning for more rights and a more accountable government".

Mr al Qahtani said the apparent effort to give religious institutions greater clout through financial benefits "is a major setback. That counters all the predictions that Saudi Arabia is becoming more liberal".

The king, who is around 87 and recently underwent back surgery, read his brief statement of about three minutes sitting down. He thanked Saudis for being loyal, presumably for not taking to the streets on March 11 in response to calls for demonstrations made by unknown activists on Facebook. "I am so proud of you. Words are not enough to describe you," he said, according to a translation provided by Reuters. "You are the safety valve of this nation and you struck at that which is wrong with the truth and at treachery with loyalty."

He made no mention of the several petitions requesting elections, a reformed judiciary and an opening up of the political system now dominated by the royal family. The petitions, signed by thousands of Saudis of both Islamist and secular orientations, were presented to the king when he returned home February 23 from a three-month medical leave abroad. The king, who famously has been a staunch promoter of women during his more than five years on the throne, also made no mention of women's rights in his speech or his decrees. He skirted comment, too, on Saudi Arabia's dispatch of 1,200 troops to Bahrain on Monday to shore up its embattled royal family.

After King Abdullah's remarks, two men took turns reading the numerous royal decrees on Saudi television, which took more than half an hour. The measures include:

Ÿ US$67 billion (Dh246bn) to build half a million housing units to deal with a severe housing shortage

Ÿ setting a $800 a month minimum wage for government employees

Ÿ increase in unemployment payments and student bonuses

Ÿ more than $4 billion for new medical centres, and adding beds to existing hospitals

The new measures follow on a previous economic benefits package estimated at $29 to $36 billion that was announced when the king returned on February 23. It covered unemployment insurance, housing loans and pay raises for government employees.

Yesterday's decrees also ordered 60,000 new jobs in the interior ministry; promotions and salary increases for all military officers and new high-level committees to address unemployment and rising prices.

On the religious front, the decrees authorised $53 million for religious police to build more offices around the country; $130 million to build and renovate mosques; $50 million for Islamic centres; $80 million for promoting Islam. The country's top religious body was also given money to open branches in different areas of the country in order to dispense fatwas.

The new ban on criticism of religious clerics may not be widely accepted. "Even Prophet Mohammed was criticised by his companions," said one Saudi. "We should not give them immunity."

 

cmurphy@thenational.ae