Saudi Arabia's top cleric urges businessmen to help troops

Grand Mufti says state is doing its bit so banks and private sector must do theirs.

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Saudi Arabia’s most senior cleric has urged businessmen and banks to set up a fund to help soldiers stationed along the southern border with Yemen to pay their bills back home, Saudi media reported on Thursday.

The call reflected growing criticism of the Saudi business community which was seen as not doing enough for the country at a time when a drop in oil prices has cut the kingdom’s revenues and eaten into living standards.

Saudi Arabia intervened in Yemen’s civil war last year at the head of an Arab coalition which includes the UAE, trying to restore the legitimate government to power.

Hundreds of people, many of them Saudi soldiers and civilians, have been killed in cross-border raids by Houthi rebels since March last year.

Speaking in a weekly radio broadcast from the Mecca, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Abdullah Al Al-Sheikh said Saudi soldiers were risking their lives “to defend their religion and country”.

“Businessmen ... must come forward as donors and contribute from their wealth to help those at the border,” the grand mufti said, according to the semi-official Al-Riyadh newspaper.

He said the state was doing its part. “It has ... spent money on the children of those fighters in the defence of the homeland ... and cared for their families, especially the martyrs,” he said.

“Non-governmental institutions of all kinds, including banks, must also show an honourable stand,” he added.

The world’s top oil exporter has been squeezed by a sharp drop in crude prices and its state budget ran a deficit of nearly $100 billion last year.

Social welfare has become more politically sensitive in Saudi Arabia since uprisings elsewhere in the region in 2011.

In 2014, Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, who then was the second in line to the Saudi Arabian throne, denounced banks in the kingdom for contributing too little to society compared to what they took in.

Saudi media have frequently published reports of soldiers and border guards facing difficulties paying debts to banks, and of Prince Miteb bin Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, the National Guards minister, of stepping in to pay personal debts of scores of conscripts.

Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who oversees the kingdom’s economy, unveiled plans in April aimed at ending the kingdom’s “addiction” to oil and transform the economy.

* Reuters