Saudis see steady course under new King

An image grab taken from Saudi state TV on Jan 23, 2015 shows Saudi Arabia's new King Salman in his first public address, in the Saudi capital Riyadh. -- PHOTO: AFP
An image grab taken from Saudi state TV on Jan 23, 2015 shows Saudi Arabia's new King Salman in his first public address, in the Saudi capital Riyadh. -- PHOTO: AFP

RIYADH (AFP) - From a young security guard to a retired general, a cross section of Saudis expect Riyadh to keep a steady course under new King Salman, although some would have welcomed a change in direction.

"There are a lot of challenges," particularly after global oil prices plunged by more than half since mid-2013, said Abdullah al-Sadoun, a member of the appointed Shura Council which advises the monarch.

But with Salman taking over from King Abdullah who died on Friday, the oil-rich kingdom will still "move forward" with its modernisation programme, said the retired air-force general.

"There will not be any big significant change, just adding things to what King Abdullah did," including expansion of educational facilities and special economic zones.

But the pace would slow because of the plunge in world oil prices that has left Saudi Arabia projecting its first budget deficit since 2011.

Oil prices have been dragged down by an oversupply of crude in the face of weak global demand, a trend accentuated when Opec in November declined to cut production.

Saudi Arabia says it cannot reduce its oil output while non-members of the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries do not.

"As long as the others are not cutting," the kingdom can be expected to maintain this policy, Sadoun said.

Beshr Bakheet, a Saudi investment fund manager, said "there's a consensus" among the country's economists and leaders that this oil price policy is a wise one.

"There is a confidence in the royal family," he said.

History shows that a change in royal leadership does not have significant effect on the Tadawul All-Shares Index, the largest bourse in the Arab world, although there will be some "sadness impact" because Abdullah was well-liked, Bakheet said.

He described the new King Salman as "extremely business-friendly."

'EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE FINE'

Saud Mubarak, 24, a security guard, praised Abdullah and said he expects Salman to carry on the late monarch's work.

"I will miss him. God took him away," Mubarak said from the Muslim holy city of Mecca.

"He did everything for us. He gave us what we need. He helped us with money," Saud said, in an apparent reference to the state's generous benefits such as foreign education scholarships.

With Abdullah's half-brother Salman replacing him, such policies should continue, Mubarak said.

"There's no change. All of them are brothers. They understand each other," said the energetic young man who taught himself English.

"Everything is going to be fine."

Others are not so sure.

An activist fighting for women's right to drive does not expect any major reforms under the new monarch.

Saudi Arabia is the world's only country where women are not allowed to get behind the wheel.

Two female rights campaigners, Loujain Hathloul and Maysaa Alamoudi, have been detained since early December after Hathloul tried to drive into the kingdom in defiance of the ban.

Activists said their cases have been transferred to a special tribunal for "terrorism".

"I don't think there'll be any major changes as long as Salman is there," said the activist who declined to be named.

A member of the country's minority Shi'ite community expressed concern about possible royal infighting over who would follow 79-year-old Salman as king.

"We hope that there will be no conflict," he said.

Most of the kingdom's Shi'ites live in the east of the predominantly Sunni country, and they have complained of marginalisation.

The Shi'ite resident said improvements in health and education which many say occurred under Abdullah were no more than a myth.

"In fact, there is no development," he said, asking for anonymity.