* Saudi king chairs first cabinet meeting since return
* King might reshuffle cabinet to address dissent-analysts
By Ulf Laessing
RIYADH, Feb 28 (Reuters) - Saudi King Abdullah chaired the first cabinet meeting on Monday after returning home from three months abroad for health treatment, with no signs of any government reshuffle or reforms demanded by activists.
On Wednesday, Abdullah, who is around 87, came back after receiving back treatment abroad and unveiled benefits worth $37 billion for Saudis in an apparent bid to insulate the top OPEC oil exporter from protests sweeping other Arab countries.
The U.S. ally has avoided large anti-government protests so far, but pressure has been building up on the leadership with activists using petitions to demand a greater public say in a monarchy that has no elected parliament or political parties.
Analysts and diplomats expect the king to make changes in his cabinet where some ministers have been around for decades. He may also announce new municipal elections to address calls for change.
In a statement carried by state news agency SPA, the cabinet did not mention any political reforms, saying only the king’s handouts would help provide “a maximum of growth and prosperity”.
It also did not mention protests in Gulf neighbours Oman and Bahrain. Analysts say Saudi Arabia is closely watching events in Bahrain where majority Shi’ites have demonstrated against the Saudi-allied Sunni government. Saudi Shi’ites living in the oil-rich Eastern Province near Bahrain also want reforms.
A Saudi analyst said he still expected a cabinet reshuffle to happen soon but the king is facing the tricky issue of having to balance demands of reform-minded and conservative princes.
“It’s a very complicated task but I think it should take not too long as people want some changes. The petitions won’t stop otherwise,” the analyst said, declining to be identified.
Diplomats say the issue is complicated by the looming succession as the king is around 87. His successor, Crown Prince Sultan, is only a few years younger and also has spent long periods abroad for unspecified illness.
For nearly 60 years Saudi Arabia has been ruled by a single generation of sons of the state founder, Abdul-Aziz Ibn Saud.
Analysts say the royal family faces a difficult task in eventually promoting princes from the next generation, while not upsetting the balance between the family’s wings and the Sunni Muslim clerics who helped found the kingdom in 1932. (Reporting by Ulf Laessing; Editing by Peter Graff)