RIYADH (AFP) – Saudi Arabia’s King Salman ordered a sweeping government reshuffle Thursday, replacing key security and political figures including the foreign minister, as the kingdom grapples with the international fallout over critic Jamal Khashoggi’s murder.
The surprise shake-up saw the appointment of new ministers of the powerful National Guard, information and education, as well as the head of a new space agency, but the energy and finance ministries were unaffected despite an economic downturn.
The revamp left untouched the authority of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler facing intense international scrutiny over the October 2 murder of journalist Khashoggi, which tipped the kingdom into one of its worst crises.
Ibrahim al-Assaf, a former finance minister who was detained last year in an anti-corruption sweep, will replace Adel al-Jubeir as foreign minister, a royal decree said.
Jubeir, who sought to defend the tainted government internationally after Khashoggi’s murder, was effectively demoted to minister of state for foreign affairs, the decree added without explaining the change.
In other significant appointments, Prince Abdullah bin Bandar was named chief of the powerful National Guard, and Musaed al-Aiban, a Harvard graduate, was appointed the new national security adviser.
The reshuffle would help the crown prince further “consolidate power” as many of those promoted were his “key allies”, tweeted Ali Shihabi, head of the pro-Saudi think tank The Arabia Foundation.
In other changes, Turki al-Shabanah, an executive at broadcaster Rotana, was appointed as the new information minister, replacing Awwad al-Awwad — who was named as an advisor to the royal court.
Turki al-Sheikh, a close aide to the crown prince, was removed as the head of the kingdom’s sports commission and appointed entertainment authority chief, while Ahmed al-Khatib was named tourism authority chief.
The king also ordered the creation of a national space agency to be led by one of his other sons, Prince Sultan bin Salman, a former astronaut.
The energy, economy and finance ministries were left untouched even as the petro-state faces a sharp fall in crude prices that has generated renewed uncertainty over Prince Mohammed’s Vision 2030 reform programme for a post-oil era.
But the appointment as foreign minister of Assaf, who holds a seat on the boards of state oil giant Aramco and the vast Public Investment Fund, indicates an emphasis on “economic diplomacy” as the kingdom seeks to reassure foreign investors rattled by the Khashoggi crisis, analysts say.
Assaf was held in Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton hotel last year along with hundreds of elite princes and businessmen, in what the government called an anti-corruption crackdown.
The reshuffle comes as Saudi Arabia seeks to repair its tarnished image after Khashoggi’s murder, widely seen as its worst diplomatic crisis since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, in which most of the hijackers were identified as Saudi nationals.
“You cannot delink Khashoggi from any developments, though government reshuffles are customary every four years,” said Mohammed Alyahya, a senior fellow at the Gulf Research Centre.
“The reshuffle saw the appointment of some young princes, but also veteran statesmen to positions of power. There is an effort to balance the fast pace of reform with bolstering government procedures and institutions.”
Saudi Arabia last week said it was creating government bodies to boost oversight of its intelligence operations, in the wake of the murder.
The kingdom has said Khashoggi was killed inside its Istanbul consulate in a “rogue operation” led by Saudi agents, but the CIA reportedly concluded that Prince Mohammed ordered his assassination.
The murder has battered the reputation of the 33-year-old crown prince, who controls all major levers of power. He is set to maintain his political and security posts after Thursday’s reshuffle, including that of defence minister.
Saudi Arabia last week slammed as “interference” a US Senate resolution that held Prince Mohammed responsible for the killing, and another that sought to end American military support for the Riyadh-led war in Yemen.
“The primary bone of contention between Saudi Arabia and American lawmakers is the power of Prince Mohammed and his responsibility for the murder of Khashoggi,” said Ryan Bohl, from the US geopolitical think tank Stratfor.
“This reshuffle doesn’t undercut the crown prince, meaning that those within the US Congress who want to see his role reduced will have an argument that further action should still be taken.”