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Saudi King Salman blames Assad for ISIS rise in Syria – ‘Security, economy top priorities’

Saudi King Salam bin Abdulaziz (center)
Saudi King Salam bin Abdulaziz (center)

RIYADH, Dec 23, (Agencies): Saudi King Salman accused Syrian President Bashar al-Assad Wednesday of having aided the rise of the Islamic State group and called for a political settlement with moderate forces to end the war there. The solution would be to form “a transitional government made up of moderate opposition forces, ensuring the unity of Syrians and the departure of foreign forces and terrorist organisations,” The King said in an annual speech to the consultative Shura Council. These organisations “could not have found fertile ground in Syria, had it not been for the Syrian regime’s policies, which have exterminated hundreds of thousands … and displaced millions” of people, said the monarch.

More than 250,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict broke out in March 2011. The kingdom, a key-backer of Syrian opposition groups, has repeatedly insisted on Assad’s departure. Earlier this month, Riyadh hosted a meeting of various Syrian armed and political opposition groups who agreed to negotiate with the regime but set Assad’s departure as a condition for any eventual political transition process.

The kingdom “calls for a political solution to end Syria’s crisis,” said King Salman, who turns 80 later this month and who made only a brief appearance at the council. He read only part of the speech, the entire text of which was later published on the official SPA news agency. In November, foreign ministers from countries that back and oppose Assad’s regime agreed on a roadmap to end the conflict. This would see a transitional government set up within six months, after regime-opposition talks, and elections within 18 months.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s monarch said Wednesday that security and economic development remain the country’s top priorities for the coming year as low oil prices keep decreasing the kingdom’s revenue. In a televised two-minute speech before the advisory Shura Council, King Salman outlined his domestic and foreign policies, which he said are aimed at serving Arab and Islamic causes as well as fighting terrorism. “The kingdom’s foreign policy adheres to fixed principles, its commitment to international agreements, which defends Arab and Islamic causes, aims to fight terrorism and achieve security and stability in the world,” he said. Since assuming the throne in January after the death of his half-brother King Abdullah, former defense minister Salman has made security his foremost concern.

Two months into King Salman’s reign, he launched an offensive into Yemen against Iranian-backed Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, who had overran the capital and other cities in the country, forcing the president and the internationally- recognized government to flee for several months to Saudi Arabia. In April, he set a new course for the monarchy’s future, recasting the line of succession and naming his nephew, Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef, as his successor.

His 30-year-old son, Mohammed bin Salman, was appointed defense minister and second-in-line to the throne. Efforts to diversify the kingdom’s economy took on greater urgency as the price of oil — the backbone of Saudi economy — fell by around half since mid-2014. The king stressed the importance of continued investments in health care, education, housing, employment and transportation. A more detailed text of Salman’s policy goals, which was distributed to Shura Council members, said higher oil prices in the past years have allowed Saudi Arabia to grow its foreign reserves and keep its debt levels low. The kingdom would “maintain stability and balance between revenue and spending on big development projects in all sectors,” it said.

Salman also said the country is committed to diversifying the kingdom’s sources of income and decreasing its dependence on oil. He pledged to make government spending more efficient, raise employment rates and create more training and work opportunities for the young. The 2016 budget is expected to be announced next week, with investors eyeing closely to see if cuts are made and to which sectors.

The International Monetary Fund estimates that Saudi Arabia will post a budget deficit of more than 20 percent of gross domestic product this year, or amounting to anywhere between $100 billion to $150 billion. Also, King Salman underscored the importance of Saudi Arabia’s custodianship of Islam’s two holiest sites in Makkah and Madinah. Notably absent from his speech was any reference to the stampede and crush during the Islamic hajj pilgrimage in September, which had killed more than 2,400 people, according to an Associated Press tally — three times the number of deaths acknowledged by the kingdom, which is continuing to investigate the incident.

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