CAIRO – More than 100 leading Saudi academics and activists urged King Abdullah to enact sweeping reforms, including setting up a constitutional monarchy, and he ordered Sunday that government sector workers with temporary contracts be given permanent jobs in order to pre-empt the unrest that has engulfed other Arab nations.
The activists' statement, seen on several Saudi websites Sunday, reflects the undercurrent of tension that has simmered for years in the world's largest oil producer. While Abdullah is seen as a reformer, the pace of those reforms has been slow as Saudi officials balance the need to push the country forward with the perennial pressure from hard-line clergy in the conservative nation.
"The current situation ... is full of reasons for concern," said the statement, which was signed by 119 academics, activists and businessmen. "We are seeing ... a receding of Saudi Arabia's prominent regional role for which our nation was known and the .... prevalence of corruption and nepotism, the exacerbation of factionalism and a widening in the gap between state and society."
Detailing a list of economic and social ills in the kingdom, the activists said "the people's consent is the sole guarantee for the unity and stability" and the people must be the source of power.
It said that while Saudi Arabia enjoys tremendous oil wealth, the money needs to be better distributed to the people instead of being channeled to expensive projects with few immediate benefits.
Abdullah has been pushing for reforms, setting up a coed research university in a country where the sexes are normally segregated and pressing ahead with construction of industrial and economic cities to diversify away from — and better capitalize on — the country's oil economy.
On Sunday, he offered a new incentive, ordering that the government move to provide permanent contracts to workers who have been employed under temporary ones. Such contracts denied them major perks like state pensions. The statement from the royal court did not say how many workers that would affect, but analysts estimate it would be well over 50,000.
That move came after Abdullah on Wednesday ordered new measures targeting low-income earners. The roughly $36 billion in initiatives includes debt forgiveness and a 15 percent cost of living increase for public sector employees. It nearly doubles the budget for a development fund that helps Saudis buy homes and it boosts funding for a bank that offers interest free loans to Saudis for a range of needs such as marriage, starting a business or buying furniture.
Saudi Finance Minister Ibrahim Al-Assaf was quoted on state television as saying the country would likely have to dip into its foreign reserves to pay for the new incentives. Saudi Arabia, which derives much of its foreign revenue from oil, has about $440 billion in foreign currency reserves, according to December figures posted on the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency's website.
But with about two-thirds of the country under 30, Saudi Arabia faces many challenges. Unemployment in the youth demographic is about three times the national average and many complain of few job opportunities. There is an 18-year waiting list for housing from the state, meaning that many young Saudis are unable to get married, since securing an apartment is a prerequisite.
Calls for reform have repeatedly been raised, but action has been slow. Women still grapple with sharply restricted freedoms and intermingling of the sexes in public is banned.
The statement called for the establishment of a constitutional monarchy and the election of members of the advisory assembly known as the Shura Council.
It calls for immediate action to set a timeline for the reforms, release political prisoners, lift the travel ban on activists or intellectuals who have run afoul of the monarchy and allow unfettered freedom of expression.
The call comes about a week after a Facebook page appeared and issued similar demands. The page, which called for protests on March 11, has shot up in popularity in the span of several days — going from about 400 people to more than 12,000.
Abdullah, who returned to Saudi Arabia on Wednesday after a three-month absence for medical treatment in the United States and recuperation in Morocco, has tried to pre-empt the unrest that has come dangerously close to his nation.