Saudi King returns home amid sweeping Arab unrest

AFP , Wednesday 23 Feb 2011

Saudi King Abdullah arrived in his homeland Wednesday after three months abroad, boosting social benefits for his people as he returned to a Middle East rocked by anti-regime uprisings

Saudi King Abdullah (Reuters)

As Saudi Arabia's king's plane touched down at King Khaled bin Abdul Aziz Airport, men in white garb performed a traditional Ardha dance while well-wishers including women, most in black niqab, waited to see their ruler.

Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz and Bahraini King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa were among a string of officials and royals who turned out to greet the 86-year-old monarch, who was seated in a black chair set up just outside the plane's door.

Saudi Arabia has declared Saturday a public holiday to mark King Abdullah's safe return home, following back surgery in New York and a recuperation period in Morocco.

Hours before his arrival, the king boosted social benefits for civil servants, the official Saudi Press Agency said.

He ordered the implementation of a 15 percent pay rise for state employees as well as an increase in the cash available for Saudi housing loans.

King Abdullah also granted pardon to some prisoners indicted in financial crimes and announced plans to tackle unemployment.

Streets and buildings in the capital, Riyadh, were decorated with national flags and large banners welcoming the monarch back to the oil-rich kingdom, whose neighbours Bahrain and Yemen are witnessing popular revolts.

The front pages of all Saudi newspapers on Wednesday were dedicated to news of the king's return, as editorials linked its timing to the "unrest" sweeping the Arab world.

"The king is the only pillar of stability in the region now," said the English-language daily Arab News.

"The king returns today at a time when the Arab world is experiencing frightening developments to what he had left not only stable... but an oasis of peace and security full of love and loyalty," said the Arabic-language daily Okaz.

Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak -- a close ally of King Abdullah -- was forced out of power under massive popular pressure on February 11.

Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia's Red Sea city of Jeddah in mid-January after protests toppled his regime.

Tunisian authorities have formally asked Saudi Arabia to extradite Ben Ali and his wife Leila Trabelsi.

Tension is also gripping Yemen as well as Libya and Bahrain, home to a large Shiite community which is demanding reform in the Sunni-ruled country.

The Saudi's oil-rich Eastern Province, which abuts Bahrain, is home to most of the estimated two million Saudi Shiites.

The unrest in the Arab world has pushed oil prices higher on fear of disruption in supplies, but Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest crude exporter, has said it has the capacity to meet any shortage.

King Abdullah flew to New York on November 22 and underwent surgery two days later for a debilitating herniated disc complicated by a haematoma.
The monarch's advanced age combined with health problems have raised concerns about the future of Saudi Arabia, which has been ruled by the Al-Saud family since 1932.

Abdullah's half-brother, Crown Prince Sultan, who has held the post of defence minister since 1962, is 83 and is believed to have cancer.

Little seen at home for the previous two years, Sultan himself flew back from Morocco on November 21 to take over the running of the government in Abdullah's absence.

Interior Minister Prince Nayef, 77, is third in line to the Saudi throne and was appointed second deputy prime minister in March 2009.

King Abdullah is expected to carry out a cabinet reshuffle after the terms of several ministers expired on February 19 and were not extended.

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