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Saudi needs bolder steps to avoid protest contagion

Saudi needs bolder steps to avoid protest contagion

Saudi needs to do more than splash the cash; Clerics, conservatives a brake on reform; Young demanding jobs, prospects.

March 3, 2011 3:19 by

Saudi Arabia’s elderly rulers need to do more than simply spread state largesse if they want to insulate the top oil exporter from Arab protests reaching the kingdom’s borders.

Last week, King Abdullah handed out benefits worth $37 billion to Saudis in an apparent bid to curb rising dissent and head off any repeat of protests that gripped the Middle East while he was abroad for three months for medical treatment.

The handouts, to be spent on social measures from housing to unemployment, study grants and sports clubs, represented less than a tenth of the sums the kingdom holds in foreign assets in order to be able to address social grievances.

But pressure is piling on the government to give its young, Internet-savvy population a greater say, analysts and diplomats say. And the injection of cash signally fails to address reform demands contained in petitions from a loose coalition of liberals, rights activists, Islamists and intellectuals.

“The king’s benefits were well received but are themselves not sufficient,” said Khalid al-Dakhil, a Saudi political analyst who signed one of the petitions calling for elections and greater transparency in government decisions.

“I think the leadership will make some changes and start an informal dialogue. There could be a cabinet change, and elections are on the table,” he said.

In three separate petitions, signed by more than 1,000 people, the heteroclite coalition also demanded greater transparency over state spending and curbs on the dominant role of the Al Saud family in politics.

“All of them basically call for a constitutional monarchy which is quite good because it came from different groups,” said Mohammed al-Qahtani, head of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association grouping liberals, lawyers and human rights activists.

“But whether the government will respond this is a big guess,” said Qahtani who has been campaigning for years.

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