ANALYSIS-Handouts dash Saudi king's "reformer" reputation

Sat Mar 19, 2011 2:37pm GMT
 

* King's image as "reformer" appears to come undone * Government bets on bolstering security, clerics

* Saudi dynasty refuses to concessions on political reform

(Refiles correcting spelling of surname in paragraph 10)

By Jason Benham and Amena Bakr

RIYADH, March 19 (Reuters) - This week's announcement by Saudi King Abdullah of 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.

Saudis on the streets of Riyadh after the king announced $93 billion in social handouts reflected the divide in society.

"There is no other king in the world who would give us what King Abdullah gives us," said Fahad al-Dosri, a 37-year-old bank official as he drove his car slowly through thick traffic of Saudis honking their horns in joy over the king's largesse.

But Abdul-Ahmed Ibrahim, a 35-year-old businessman watching from the sidewalk was not buying it.

"No, it's not enough," he said despondently. "We want a change to the system. We want change because of the huge corruption."

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 on 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.

NO CONCESSIONS

With a wave of unrest toppling the governments of Egypt and Tunisia and spreading to neighbouring Yemen, Bahrain and Oman, the ruling family appears to have ruled out any big concessions, said Sam Ciszuk, senior analyst at IHS Global Insight.

"The Saudi regime wants to demonstrate stability now. They do not do anything under pressure. Handing out money 'from the bounty' is their traditional role anyway, so that in itself is no concession," Ciszuk said.

"They want to make sure that nothing they do looks like a concession to their citizens and in the region, hence no cabinet reshuffle and a lot of security jobs and buttressing of the religious police," he added.

The one concession to criticism appeared to be the creation of a new body with a large budget to fight corruption.

All this contrasts with the image of a reformer that King Abdullah's supporters and Saudi media had built up since he ascended the throne in 2005 when U.S. pressure was still strong because of presence of Saudis among the Sept. 11 attackers.

That year Riyadh held its first municipal elections in four decades and the king stated his support for "cautious reform".

Since then political openings have dried up, while the country has continued to liberalise sections of its economy, attract foreign investment and outflank religious hardliners who were seen as encouraging al Qaeda militancy.

For all these efforts the country won praise from Western allies, accepting Riyadh's argument that the ruling dynasty was a bulwark against extremist religious forces who could take over if political reform moved too fast.

It is far from clear if the government's bet that there is not a critical mass of young Saudis prepared to fight for more rights will pay dividends in the longer term.

Shi'ites have staged marches in the Eastern Province, where most of Saudi Arabia's oil fields are located, but the authorities are used to Shi'ite activism which the Sunni clerics paint as typical acts by deviant and disloyal citizenry.

Few Saudis in major cities answered a Facebook call for protests on March 11. They would have faced a massive security deployment on the streets if they had tried.

(Editing by Andrew Hammond and Peter Graff)

 
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