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.

Saudi Press Agency/Reuters
Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah speaks to Saudi media upon his arrival at Riyadh airport on Feb. 23. King Abdullah unveiled a series of benefits for Saudis estimated to be worth $10.7 billion on his return home on Wednesday from three months abroad for medical treatment.

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.

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.

But those agitating for change have made the Internet their virtual Tahrir Square, with locations like #EgyEffectSA on Twitter acting as a public forum for how they see Egypt affecting Saudi Arabia.

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.”

And last week, the king’s half-brother, Prince Talal bin Abdul Aziz, said in a BBC TV interview that unless the king made further reforms the kingdom risked future revolution. Although Talal is a maverick with little support within the royal family, his remarks are being widely discussed by Saudis.

Significantly, these calls for change do not include an end to the monarchy, which most Saudis believe would spell disaster.

“Most people, including the young, really do believe in the monarchy, especially King Abdullah – everybody adores him,” says Eman al-Nafjan, a prominent Riyadh-based blogger. “It’s just a matter of pushing for reforms” such as an elected parliament and “more transparency and accountability when it comes to the country’s budget.”

Chief concerns: Unemployment, corruption, detention without trial

There have been some fleeting demonstrations: By college graduates who want the Education Ministry to give them jobs; by Jeddah residents angry about flood damage, and by about 50 women demanding the release of male relatives held for years without trial for alleged terrorist-related activities.

Unemployment, corruption, and these long-term detentions are the issues fueling the most discontent here.

“We need a total reform regarding the dignity of the citizen,” says Mohammad al-Hodaif, who has three male relatives detained for long periods without charges.

A religious conservative, Mr. Hodaif took his daughters to a Chinese restaurant to celebrate the fall of Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak. Egypt, he said, was “a revolution of freedom and democracy. People are eager for freedom and democracy. Not just in Egypt. In all Arab countries.”

Riyadh attorney Abdulaziz al-Gasim also avidly followed Egypt’s gripping transformation on Twitter and on TV. Its affect on his own government, he says, is clear.

“It has put them in the most difficult situation in their lives because this is a clear battle," Mr. Gasim says. "The goal now is very clear.... It is for good governance and guarantees of that by a constitutional state.”

No sign that government will listen

There is no sign, however, that the government is ready to listen to any political demands. Founders of the Umma Party were arrested and several remain in detention.

In a meeting last week with Saudi newspaper editors, Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz, another half-brother to the king and a likely heir to the throne, said that events in Egypt were the work of outsiders and would have no effect on Saudi Arabia, according to a participant and others who got reports on the seven-hour gathering.

Prince Nayef also warned his audience about liberals trying to make Saudi Arabia like the West, they said.

Many Saudis agree with Nayef. They are deeply conservative and leery of change that would dilute their religious identity. And even those who want some reforms are worried about jeopardizing their domestic stability.

“I’m afraid of chaos, like in Iraq,” says Suliman Aljimaie, a Jeddah attorney who thinks change is coming too fast in the Arab world. “The United States said it would move Iraq to democracy and now you see what happened there…. Change should be [introduced] slowly, not with this speed.”

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