King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia announced financial support measures, worth an estimated SR135bn ($36bn), in a bid to avert the kind of popular unrest that has toppled leaders across the region and is now closing in on Libya’s Muammer Gaddafi.
The measures include a 15 per cent salary rise for public employees to offset inflation, reprieves for imprisoned debtors, and financial aid for students and the unemployed.
Saudi Arabia’s ruling family has thus far been spared the type of popular discontent that has toppled presidents in Tunisia and Egypt and brought Libya to the brink of civil war.
The announcement of the Saudi relief measures coincided with King Abdullah’s return to the country after three months. He had been abroad for medical treatment. Among those on hand to greet him was King Hamid bin Isa al-Khalifa of neighbouring Bahrain, which is struggling to contain a surging opposition movement.
The cash-rich Saudi government has pledged to spend $400bn by the end of 2014 to improve education, infrastructure and healthcare. “The king is trying to create wider trickle- down of wealth in the shape of social welfare,” said John Sfakianakis, chief economist at Banque Saudi Fransi. “The budget can handle that, but it is an aspirin to ease medium-term pain, not a solution for the long-term housing, and unemployment issue.”
The loss on Wednesday of Misurata to his opponents meant that Colonel Gaddafi no longer controlled the majority of his country’s Mediterranean coastline. In cities in the east, opponents set about forming their own local administrations.
Mass evacuations of workers by foreign oil companies have caused production in Libya, the world’s 12th-largest exporter and an important supplier to Europe, to slow.
Despite a prolonged economic surge, unemployment has remained above 10 per cent and is cited by government officials as one of their primary concerns.
Critics said the sweeteners did not address the Saudi public’s political aspirations. Protests, political parties and labour unions are banned in the conservative kingdom. “We need a new higher education minister, a new health minister, reform of the judiciary and codified laws – not hand-outs,” said Turki Al-Balaa, a 34 year-old businessmen.
“We want real change. This will be the only guarantee of security of the kingdom,” added Hassan al-Mustafa, one of 40 Saudi rights activists and journalists who signed an open letter requesting an elected parliament, more rights for women and enhanced anti-corruption measures.”A constitutional monarchy closer to the Kuwaiti model is not an impossible target to achieve right now.”
Reformists including Prince Talal bin Abdelaziz, the king’s half brother, have called for similar reforms. Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy ruled by consensus among the royal family and in alliance with an austere religious establishment that preaches obedience to the king. The country’s leading clerics have warned against the “evils” of the regional unrest which they say were incited by foreigners to foment instability in Muslim countries.
Hundreds of people have signed up to a Facebook campaign calling for a “day of rage” across Saudi Arabia on March 11, although it is not clear if any protests will materialise. Analysts said the late date suggested that activists wanted to give the government time to introduce reforms, and not a real desire to take to the streets.
“We don’t want money,” a female student from Jeddah said on her Twitter feed. “I want to know that I’ll be protected under a written constitution for the rest of my short life.”
A lawyer wrote that the Saudi people seek “dignity, reform, freedom of expression, transparency, justice, respect, wise governance, not grants”.