Saudi king announces huge spending to stem dissent


SAUDI KING Abdullah yesterday vowed to strike anyone harming the kingdom’s stability and decreed a multibillion dollar package of investments with the aim of stemming dissent inspired by uprisings that have toppled the rulers of Tunisia and Egypt.

Recently returned to Riyadh from the US, the ailing king (87) raised the minimum wage to $800 a month and dole payments to the unemployed to $260. He promised an additional two months of wages for government workers and scholarship grants for students.

He pledged to construct half a million apartments for low-income families and to pour money into the housing loan fund. He announced an anti-corruption campaign and increased funding for hospitals.

Last month he offered $36 billion in payouts targeting the unemployed.

The overall jobless rate is 10 per cent but is 43 per cent for Saudis between the ages of 20-24.

He also announced 60,000 new posts in the security services in order to provide employment for jobless youngsters, as well as boosting manpower at a time the kingdom seeks to contain both political and labour unrest.

But he did not propose political changes demanded by Saudi reformers who want to see the country’s absolute monarchy loosen its grip on power.

While Saudi protests have been small and easily dispersed by the authorities, the Sunni rulers of the kingdom fear disaffected Saudis, particularly young men, could be infected with the dreams of political reform and democracy that have prompted Arabs from dis- tant Morocco in the west to neighbouring Bahrain in the east to revolt against autocratic regimes.

Riyadh dispatched 1,000 troops early this week to stabilise Bahrain while the Sunni King Hamad al-Khalifa cleared largely Shia pro- testers from the Pearl roundabout and the streets of the capital.

Shias, more than two-thirds of the indigenous population, have been demanding equal rights, political reform, and powersharing between an elected parliament and the ruling family.

Saudi Arabia has its own alienated Shias, who suffer both political and religious discrimination and, whenever they protest, are accused of adopting an Iranian agenda.

While Iran’s Shia rulers attempted to export their “Islamic Revolution” to the Middle East after toppling the shah in 1979, the region’s majority Sunnis rejected Tehran’s message.

However, Saudis saw the rise of a fresh Iranian challenge when the US installed a Shia-dominated regime in Iraq, the region’s only Shia majority country other than Bahrain.