By Arab News
By P.K. Abbdul Ghafour
Saudi Arabia will mark the seventh anniversary of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah’s accession to the Saudi throne on May 17 with a variety of programs highlighting the remarkable progress achieved by the Kingdom in education, health, industry, agriculture and other sectors under his wise leadership.
King Abdullah’s announcement at the Shoura Council’s annual meeting last year, giving women the right to stand and vote in future municipal elections and join the consultative body as full members had won international applause.
“As we refuse to marginalize women in society in all roles that comply with Shariah, we have decided, after deliberation with our senior Islamic scholars to involve women in the Shoura Council as members, starting from the next term,” the king said.
“Women will be able to run as candidates in the municipal election and will even have a right to vote,” King Abdullah said in his historic announcement. It was another major move by the king to empower Saudi women.
Last year also witnessed King Abdullah unveiling a SR 500 billion social spending package that included a monthly unemployment payment of SR 2,000, a minimum wage of SR 3,000, creation of 60,000 new military jobs under the Interior Ministry; and an increase in the home-building lending limit of the Real Estate Development Fund from SR 300,000 to SR 500,000 per loan.
Half of the value of the package — SR 250 billion — will be used to construct 500,000 homes to address the country’s growing housing shortage. The king also announced a ministerial-level anti-corruption commission headed by Muhammad Al-Sharief.
The package includes SR 300 million to support the Islamic Dawa (Call & Guidance) offices and SR 200 million to support Qur’an-memorization organizations. He announced one-time cash payment of two months’ salary to all government employees, including members of the military, in addition to two months worth of living stipends to Saudis studying under government scholarships.
King Abdullah has always given top priority for the development of the two holy mosques. On Aug. 19, 2011, he launched the largest expansion of the Grand Mosque in history, which will increase the mosque’s capacity to more than 2.5 million worshippers. The project is estimated to cost SR 80 billion.
Saleh Al-Hosain, former head of the Presidency of the Two Holy Mosques, praised experts at Saudi universities for preparing the best, environment-friendly designs for the expansion while incorporating high safety standards. “As King Abdullah wished, the whole Islamic world would be proud of the new expansion project,” Al-Hosain said.
The new project, covering 400,000 sq. meters in the northwest and northeast of the mosque, is the project of the century, said Muhammad Al-Khozaim, vice president of the Presidency for the Two Holy Mosques Affairs. He disclosed plans to expand the mataf (the circumambulation areas around the Holy Kaaba) and provide air-conditioning for all parts of the Grand Mosque.
During the king’s rule, the number of public universities in the Kingdom rose from seven to 24. “King Abdullah has sent about 100,000 young Saudi men and women on scholarship to foreign universities to pursue higher education. He insisted that Saudi scholarship students go to universities in different countries such as Japan, China, India, the US, the UK, Australia, New Zealand and South Korea and come back with their distinct experiences, know-how and expertise to develop the country,” said Abdullah Omar Naseef, former deputy chairman of the Shoura Council.
King Abdullah’s economic reforms were instrumental in strengthening the Kingdom’s competitiveness, said Abdul Rahman Al-Rashid, chairman of Asharqia Chamber, adding that foreign investment in the Kingdom has reached more than SR 639 billion. The Global Competitiveness Report 2011-12 put Saudi Arabia at No. 17 from No. 21 in 2010-11.
King Abdullah announced a record SR 690 billion ($184 billion) surplus budget for 2012, the largest in the Kingdom’s history. The budget allocated SR 168 billion for education and manpower training, SR 87 billion for health and social development, SR 58 billion for water, industry, agriculture and infrastructure, SR 35 billion for transport and communication and SR 29 billion for municipal services.
Finance Minster Ibrahim Al-Assaf said the Kingdom’s gross domestic product (GDP) for 2011 was expected to reach SR 2.163 trillion with an increase of 28 percent compared to the previous year.
“King Abdullah is committed to building a 21st century economy which has at its core Saudi human capital developing while raising expenditures at a healthy pace, reducing its debt burden and encouraging private sector participation,” Saudi economic analyst Turki A. Al-Hugail said while commenting on the budget.