By NBC News’ Lubna Hussain
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – One week after the planned “Day of Rage” didn’t materialize on the streets of Saudi Arabia’s main cities, the police had to deal with a different kind of “demonstration” in the kingdom’s capital.
The youth of the kingdom, draped in green and white flags and clutching poster-sized portraits of their king, poured into the streets Friday in a show of solidarity and support for his rule.
STR / AP
Saudi men gesture as they carry national flags during street celebrations in support of Saudi King Abdullah in Riyadh on Friday.
Earlier in the day, the 86-year-old ruler of this deeply conservative oil-rich kingdom had announced a series of measures to boost welfare benefits, create more jobs, build new housing, improve healthcare and establish a new agency to tackle corruption – at a cost of $93 billion.
Many cynics dismissed these initiatives as a cosmetic glossing over of the real problems that exist within Saudi society. With unemployment estimated to be above 10 percent and a burgeoning youth population, the median age is 25, the country faces serious challenges.
But as one senior Saudi official put it on Monday, the reform package “could buy us the time we need before any serious political reforms are implemented.”
Unlike elsewhere in the region, Saudi Arabia has the economic clout to be able carry out its promise of pouring billions of dollars into public projects, at least for the foreseeable future. With the price of oil at more than $100 per barrel, even a $93 billion series of initiatives is affordable for this oil-rich nation.
FAHAD SHADEED / Reuters
Men pose with a photograph of Saudi's King Abdullah after the King addressed the nation in Riyadh on Friday.
Soft power of the king
But what distinguishes the kingdom from other countries, asides from its impressive oil reserves, and what most so-called “Saudi experts” consistently underestimate and have failed to fathom, is the soft power of the king himself.
“I love my King Abdullah!” shouted 18-year-old Thamer Al Said, when asked why he was out on the streets with his friends. “All the people love him because he is a great man and he loves his people,” he continued, raising a picture of the king high above his head.
His sentiments were echoed by many on Riyadh’s streets Friday. Cars were spray-painted green and white and some owners had even gone as far as to have pictures of the king etched onto their rear windows. Stereos blared patriotic songs lauding the attributes of King Abdullah: “We love you, father of the nation. May Allah Bless you with a long life!”
Mohammed Al Harthy, a computer engineer who has been unemployed for two years had mixed feelings about the decrees. “I know that our government is trying its best to help the people, but life here is very expensive these days and it’s very hard when you don’t have a job after studying all these years. I want to work. I don’t want to have to accept charity from anyone.”
So did he think that regime change was the solution?
“I think everybody here loves the king and you know, we all believe in him. We have a lot of problems, like anywhere else, but we want to find our own solutions. What King Abdullah has done is a great step, but there are lots of things that need to change. We don’t want our king to change, but we want him to make the changes that we need.”