Saudi king offers benefits as he returns from treatment

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Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah speaks to Saudi media upon his arrival at Riyadh airport, 23 February 2011
Image caption,
The king was greeted by hundreds of well-wishers on his arrival at Riyadh airport

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah has announced increased benefits for his citizens, as he returned after months abroad getting medical treatment.

There will be extra funds for housing, studying abroad and social security, according to state television.

King Abdullah has been away from the country for three months, during which time mass protests have changed the political landscape of the Middle East.

There have been few demonstrations in Saudi Arabia.

Hundreds of men in white robes performed a traditional sword dance at Riyadh airport and dozens of princes gathered to greet the king on his arrival - including Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa.

King Abdullah left for New York on 22 November and had two operations to repair spinal vertebrae and a herniated disc.

After a period of convalescence at his New York home, the 86-year-old flew to Morocco on 22 January and had been recuperating there since.

By that time, Tunisia's president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali had become the first leader in the region to be ousted after weeks of mass protests - and he had fled to Saudi Arabia.

Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, a close ally of King Abdullah, was the next to go.

Small businesses

The younger generation were prominent in both protest movements and among the measures announced ahead of the king's return were plans to tackle unemployment.

Among the 15 - 24 age group, unemployment in Saudi Arabia is reported to be almost 40%.

Meanwhile, state employees are to get a 15% pay rise and the king has reportedly ordered that 40bn riyals ($10.7bn; £6.6bn) be pumped into the country's development fund - which provides interest-free loans to Saudis who want to build homes, get married or start small businesses.

King Abdullah's health has been the subject of intense speculation, especially since the men tipped to succeed him are also elderly.

His half-brother Crown Prince Sultan - who is in his 80s and has been in poor health - has been in charge in his absence.

The monarch's imminent return was welcomed by the Saudi media.

"The king is the only pillar of stability in the region now," read the editorial in the English-language daily Arab News. "He is the assurance of orderly progress... in the Arab world as a whole."

Soon after arrival, King Abdullah went into talks with King Hamad of Bahrain, which is on Saudi Arabia's eastern border.

The small state has seen more than a week of protests and the Bahraini authorities were criticised internationally for their initial crackdown on demonstrators.