Handouts dash Saudi king’s reformer reputation

By Reuters Staff
March 21, 2011
saudi king

(Saudi King Abdullah addresses the nation from his office at the Royal Palace in Riyadh March 18, 2011/Saudi Press Agency)

Saudi King Abdullah’s lavish social handouts and a boost to security and religious police, but no political change, leaves his prized reputation as a reformist in tatters, analysts say.

The king, believed to be 87, has carefully crafted an image as a cautious reformer in a country ruled by a single generation of his brothers as absolute monarchs for nearly six decades. But faced with unrest rocking much of the Arab world, he is playing the old game of buying support from key sectors of society to keep family rule as it is.

In a rare TV address to the nation last Friday, the king announced the new spending but gave no concessions on rights in a country where public space is dominated by the royal family, political parties are banned and there is no elected parliament.

There was no word either on a much anticipated reshuffle of a cabinet whose main posts are held by senior princes, some of whom have been in their jobs for more than four decades in the key U.S. ally and world’s top oil exporter. “I was expecting perhaps a cabinet reshuffle but unfortunately he focussed on paying money and he has increased the role of the religious establishment,” said Tawfiq al-Saif, a leading intellectual among minority Saudi Shi’ite Muslims.

“He is returning to the policy of the late King Fahd in the 1980s when money and religion was the only tool of the government,” he said.

Measures to raise benefits for the unemployed, add jobs and increase the minimum wage were accompanied by the creation of 60,000 security positions and more money for the religious police who keep a firm grip on personal behaviour. And in a sign Saudi’s ruling elite will not tolerate dissent, Abdullah said the media must respect the Sunni clerics who oversee the application of sharia law in the Islamic state.

NRead the full analysis by Jason Benham and Amena Bakr here.

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