By Simon Robinson, Reuters, Feb 28, 2011
LONDON (Reuters) - When Saudi King Abdullah arrived home last week, he came bearing gifts: handouts worth $37 billion, apparently intended to placate Saudis of modest means and insulate the world's biggest oil exporter from the wave of protest sweeping the Arab world.
But some of the biggest handouts over the past two decades have gone to his own extended family, according to unpublished American diplomatic cables dating back to 1996.
The cables, obtained by WikiLeaks and reviewed by Reuters, provide remarkable insight into how much the vast royal welfare program has cost the country -- not just financially but in terms of undermining social cohesion.
Besides the huge monthly stipends that every Saudi royal receives, the cables detail various money-making schemes some royals have used to finance their lavish lifestyles over the years. Among them: siphoning off money from "off-budget" programs controlled by senior princes, sponsoring expatriate workers who then pay a small monthly fee to their royal patron and, simply, "borrowing from the banks, and not paying them back."
As long ago as 1996, U.S. officials noted that such unrestrained behavior could fuel a backlash against the Saudi elite. In the assessment of the U.S. embassy in Riyadh in a cable from that year, "of the priority issues the country faces, getting a grip on royal family excesses is at the top."
A 2007 cable showed that King Abdullah has made changes since taking the throne six years ago, but recent turmoil in the Middle East underlines the deep-seated resentment about economic disparities and corruption in the region.
A Saudi government spokesman contacted by Reuters declined to comment.