x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Saudi king promises reforms, wage increases and anti-corruption panel

In a rare speech, King Abdullah offers a series of cash gifts and new jobs within the kingdom's security forces, but came short of offering the political concessions sought by the opposition.

CAIRO // Saudi Arabia’s king promised a multibillion dollar package of reforms, raises, cash, loans and apartments on Friday in what appeared to be the Arab world’s most expensive attempt to appease residents inspired by the unrest that has swept two leaders from power.

He also announced 60,000 new jobs in the security forces – a move that would employ huge numbers of otherwise jobless young men, while bolstering his kingdom’s ability to snuff out protests.

The ailing 86-year-old King Abdullah, his soft voice trembling, rarely looked up from his notes in the speech broadcast live on Saudi television.

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 neighboring island of Bahrain, where Saudi troops lead a 1,500-strong Gulf military force against Shiite demonstrators.

Saudi demonstrators have mostly come from the Shiite-dominated eastern quarter of the kingdom. They share similar grievances as their Shiite brethren in the nearby island monarchy, and the Sunni powers fear their unrest will give an opening for Shiite Iran to expand its influence on the Arab side of the Gulf.

But the changes announced by Abdullah did not loosen the tribal monarchy’s tight hold on power – a key demand of Saudi opposition figures. The gesture also overlooked requests by intellectuals to release political prisoners and reform the country’s decision-making process.

Abdullah thanked residents and security forces and asked them to remember him in their prayers.

“You are the shields of this homeland and the beating hand of those who dare challenge its security and stability. May God bless you and your actions,” the king said in the three-minute speech.

King Abdullah is popular, though critics protest the closed, autocratic system he heads.

News readers – not the king – read the series of royal decrees promising a minimum wage increase, cash gifts and an anti-corruption drive. No total cost was given for the package.

The sweeteners include an additional two months’ wages for all government workers and two extra payments for university students worth around $500. He raised the monthly minimum wage to $800 and announced a monthly payment of around $260 to the country’s unemployed. The king set aside around $70 billion to build 500,000 apartments for low-income residents. He promised millions more capital for the government’s housing loan fund and raised the maximum loan for homes to around $130,000.

The king vowed to fight corruption with the creation of a new body answerable directly to him. He promised billions for the health sector – announcing new research centers around the country, homes for medics and thousands of new hospital beds. He also promised an extra $40 million for private hospitals.

In a boon to the country’s conservatives, he vowed around $130 million to build and renovate mosques and around $50 million each for Islamic centers that teach the Muslim holy book and to build offices for the country’s religious police.

Starkly absent from the promises were any funds for the country’s education system. The King vowed to pressure private businesses to employ more Saudi residents and said he would crack down on merchants who raised the prices of basic goods.

The new swath of promises were the second series of sweeteners offered to Saudi residents. Earlier this month, the King ordered roughly $37 billion to be pumped into various programs targeting the oil kingdom’s lower income population.

And the oil-rich country also promised to fund part of a $20 billion in financial aid package earlier this month to the Gulf states of Bahrain and Oman in attempts there to quell demonstrations in both countries with promises of more cash.

It remains to be seen if the sweeteners will placate residents weary of the tribal monarchy’s tight grip on power.