Saudi government reshuffle designed to address the country’s challenges

Saudi Prince Abdullah bin Bandar bin Abdulaziz will head the National Guard and Khalid bin Qarar al-Harbi was appointed head of national security.
Sunday 06/01/2019
Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud leads a cabinet meeting in Riyadh, January 1. (DPA)
A focus on security and foreign policy. Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud leads a cabinet meeting in Riyadh, January 1. (DPA)

LONDON - A sweeping Saudi government reshuffle was intended to help Riyadh face challenges that Saudi Arabia expects domestically and abroad in 2019.

Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud issued royal decrees December 27 that rearranged the cabinet and the Council of Political and Security Affairs.

“The reshuffle is designed to ensure that the cabinet has the best combination of the experience and know-how to meet the needs of the kingdom over the coming four years and strengthen our relations with friendly countries around the world,” a Saudi government statement said.

The Council of Political and Security Affairs, which is headed by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, was initiated in 2015 and included the kingdom’s head of intelligence and ministers of foreign affairs, information and Islamic affairs. After the decree, the body will include the minister of interior, the head of state security and the national security adviser, Al Riyadh Daily reported.

Saudi media reports said 16 officials had been dismissed, including the head of the National Guard, the ministers of education, information, the head of national security and the heads of the committees for tourism, entertainment and sports.

Veteran diplomat Adel al-Jubeir was replaced as foreign minister, a position he had held since April 2015, with Ibrahim al-Assaf, who served as finance minister from 1996-2016. Jubeir is to become minister of State for Foreign Affairs and a member of the council of ministers.

The Saudi Foreign Ministry’s Twitter page said that ministry would “take up the management of the Foreign Affairs Ministry in all its actions and the leadership of its development programmes.” The new position of minister of state for foreign affairs will “exclusively occupy itself with political and diplomatic actions.”

Jubeir had become a “minister without a portfolio,” a law professor told the online Saudi news site Sabq.

“Jubeir will be far removed from the ministry’s administrative work. He has been discharged [so he can devote himself] to specific work, to take advantage of his diplomatic abilities, his skills and strong language [skills],” he said.

Saudi Prince Abdullah bin Bandar bin Abdulaziz, who was appointed deputy governor of Mecca last year, will head the National Guard and Khalid bin Qarar al-Harbi was appointed head of national security. Harbi has had several government posts, including head of the special emergency forces in Medina and commander of the special emergency forces, local reports stated.

Eman al-Mutairi, the new assistant commerce minister, is the second Saudi woman to serve in a senior cabinet position, almost a year after Tamader bint Youssef al-Rammah was appointed deputy minister of labour and social development.

Some outlets attributed the changes to fallout from the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi last October. However, the reshuffle was expected due to the expiration of the government’s 4-year mandate.

“You cannot delink Khashoggi from any developments, though government reshuffles are customary every four years,” Mohammed Alyahya, a senior fellow at the Gulf Research Centre told Agence France-Presse.

“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.”

“It’s natural for people to try and associate any developments with the Khashoggi tragedy but it’s difficult to see any of these specific changes as resulting specifically from that.” Ali Shihabi, head of the Arabia Foundation in Washington, said in a tweet the day the reshuffle was announced.

Shihabi said: “The recent restructuring of the intelligence agency was a direct result of the Khashoggi murder but otherwise today’s changes also address structural issues (like the need to increase the senior bandwidth in the foreign policy space) that have been on the table for a while.”

Also, the kingdom’s council of ministers will no longer be under the umbrella of the royal court, which has been the case since a June 2011 decree by King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.

“This is a major change,” Minister of State Mohammed al-Shaikh told Bloomberg News. “From a governance point of view, it’s better to go back to the original model under which the royal court handled the affairs of his majesty the king as sovereign and another court that handled his affairs as the head of the executive branch.”