Saudi Arabia Uses Money To Address Protester Issues

Saudi Arabia's King Abduallah has put money on the table to try to head off the popular youth-led protests that are sweeping the rest of the region. The king, 87, granted citizens a Saudi-sized gift of $35 billion. The money goes to address the lack of affordable housing and youth unemployment.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The king of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah, has put money on the table to try to head off the popular youth-led protests that are sweeping the rest of the Arab world. The 87-year-old king, who's been out of the country for three months for medical treatments, returned home and immediately granted Saudi citizens a gift of $35 billion. We're going to talk about this with NPR's Deborah Amos. She is in Saudi Arabia's eastern province in the town of Qatif.

Hi, Deborah.

DEBORAH AMOS: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What did the king buy for $35 billion?

AMOS: Saudis have been waiting to see just how the king would react to the regional uprisings. And they got their answer with this whopping 35 billion bucks. The Saudis can afford it because oil prices are rising.

Here's how the money was targeted. For instance, for the first time there's a kind of unemployment insurance. That's going to be popular with young people. They're the hardest hit on unemployment. Any Saudi studying abroad is now granted a full government scholarship. You can just walk into an embassy and get your scholarship.

A lot of the money targets the poor. It's surprising how many there are in this rich country. About $10 billion goes to address the housing crisis. The majority of Saudis don't own their own homes. There's an 18 year wait to get a mortgage.

I talked to an economist this morning who said it's not quite going to work. It maybe will bring that down to 16 years waiting for a mortgage. That housing crisis is still probably going to remain.

INSKEEP: Well, I'm interested, though. We've heard in country after country about young people, many of them university educated, who can't find jobs in spite of their education. Is there that sort of problem in Saudi Arabia right now?

AMOS: Big problem in Saudi Arabia - male college graduates, unemployment rate for them is 44 percent. These are structural problems. You can't fix it with money. You have to fix it with structural reforms.

Foreigners get most of the jobs that college graduates are qualified for. Many of the subjects that are taught in Saudi universities don't prepare them. The king has sent 100,000 students to Western universities. But the jobs aren't there for them yet, so they hang out in Western capitals getting MAs, PhDs, waiting for something to change. And that's the problems with this 35 billion. It doesn't address the structural problems in Saudi Arabia's economy.

INSKEEP: So you're handing out money, in many cases to the poor, which I'm sure is helpful for them, but it does not actually get at the causes of unrest in the Arab world.

AMOS: Well, every Gulf monarch has tried this strategy. Kuwait and Bahrain simply handed out cash. And it hasn't stopped the political demands. Now, it's always hard to tell what's going on beneath the Saudi surface, but there is a political awakening here that I have never seen before.

And even as the king was announcing this social package, a new letter appeared on the Web. It's called the 23rd February Youth Letter to the King that outlined political demands. There was another one that appeared this morning, and that has signatures of older Saudis, known reformers and clerics. They're calling for more political participation.

I talked to a Saudi blogger today, and he says you can't throw a bag of money at us without fixing corruption. And the king did add more jobs to do that, but so much of that corruption is within the royal family itself. And my blogger source called this social aid package a Panadol for political problems. And that's the popular headache medicine here.

The demand from the reformers is at least an elected parliament here. They want representation. They want more participation in this government.

INSKEEP: NPR's Deborah Amos is in eastern Saudi Arabia, where the king - King Abdullah - has given $35 billion to his people in an effort to stem unrest or the possibility of unrest.

Deb, thanks very much.

AMOS: Thank you.

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