Saudi king announces benefits before return

Riyadh–Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah announced a series of benefits for Saudis worth billions of riyals ahead of his return on Wednesday from three months abroad for health treatment, state television said.

The announcements, which included funding to offset high inflation, and to help young unemployed people and students studying abroad, were made as popular protests over poverty, corruption and repression hit many countries in the region.

The measures did not include any political reforms in the absolute monarchy such as municipal elections, as demanded by liberals and opposition groups. The kingdom has no elected parliament and does not tolerate public dissent.

Abdullah, believed to be around 87, travelled to the United States in November for treatment to a herniated disk which caused blood accumulation around the spine. He has been recuperating in Morocco for the past four weeks, after undergoing surgery in New York.

During the king's absence, his brother Crown Prince Sultan was in charge. However, doubts remain over Sultan's health because he was abroad much of the past two years for illness.

Analysts do not expect unrest like in Egypt or Tunisia since the kingdom sits on more than US$400 billion in petrodollars, but say the government needs to address social pressures such as the high youth unemployment and extensive housing problems.

The state will pay aid for unemployed young people and tuition fees to study abroad, while waiving some loans, state TV said.

Political stability in the top OPEC producer is of global concern as Saudi Arabia controls more than a fifth of oil reserves, is a major holder of dollar assets and a vital regional US ally.

Riyadh has been keen to show its Western allies there will be no power vacuum despite its octogenarian rulers' health problems. But Abdullah's medical troubles have raised concern over whether he will be succeeded by a reformist like himself or a conservative.

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