Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah promises $36 billion in benefits
King Abdullah returned home today to a Saudi Arabia seemingly moored in the eye of the storm howling from Libya to Bahrain. But reformers are intensifying calls for political change.
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
After three months away, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz promised his subjects billions of dollars in new benefits as he returned home today to a region roiled by revolt.Skip to next paragraph
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As other leaders across the Middle East scurry to appease discontented citizens, the king introduced 19 new measures estimated to cost 135 riyals ($36 billion), according to John Sfakianakis, chief economist of Banque Sausi Fransi. The measures address inflation and housing, expand social security benefits, and ease unemployment and education costs – two areas of particular concern to Saudi youths. (Editor's note: The original version of the story underestimated the cost of the measures.)
King Abdullah's nation is seemingly moored in the eye of the epic storm howling around it. But it is also clear that the octogenarian king, who went to New York in late November for back surgery and then to Morocco to convalesce, is returning to a realm touched in significant ways by the youth rebellions roiling the Middle East.
More than ever before, Saudis are openly calling for change, including political reforms. The most vociferous are tech-savvy youths who have obsessively followed their peers’ historic movements, especially in Egypt, on Twitter and Facebook.
True, King Abdullah – whose oil-rich coffers provide the country with generous benefits and material development – is genuinely liked by most of his subjects. And the government is shielded by a religious culture in which rebellion is deemed illicit and public street protest considered gauche.
Demands include women's vote, younger leaders
In a move timed to the king’s return Wednesday, a group of 40 young Saudis, mostly journalists and rights activists, signed an open “Letter to the King.”
The signers say they were inspired by Arab youth elsewhere, and by the king’s encouragement of national dialogue. They asked for elections for the advisory Shura Council, the right of women to vote and run as candidates, strong anticorruption measures, and greater fiscal transparency and accountability.
In addition, they want the cabinet reshuffled so that ministers’ average age, now 65, is reduced to 40.
In another effort – albeit one that did not get very far – 10 moderate Islamists, including university professors and lawyers, defied the ban on political parties and announced they were forming the Islamic Umma Party.
“We think the royal family is not the only one who has the right to be leader of the country,” Abdul Aziz Mohammed al-Wohaibi, one of the party’s founders, said in an interview. “We should treat the royal family like any other group.... No special treatment.”
Asked if the group had been launched because of events in Egypt, Wohaibi replied that they “had created an environment for a movement like this.”