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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

Saudi king replaces labour minister in a bid to reduce unemployment

The Kingdom aims to create 1.2 million jobs by 2022

Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud is seen during the 29th Arab Summit in Dhahran. Bandar Algaloud / Saudi Royal Court via Reuters 
Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud is seen during the 29th Arab Summit in Dhahran. Bandar Algaloud / Saudi Royal Court via Reuters 

Saudi Arabia's King Salman on Saturday replaced the labour minister and set up new government bodies to promote culture and protect the environment as the kingdom seeks to modernise and create jobs for an overwhelmingly young population.

Private sector businessman Ahmed bin Suleiman Al Rajhi was named minister of labour and social development, succeeding Ali bin Nasser Al Ghafis, according to royal orders published by state media.

Getting hundreds of thousands of unemployed Saudis into the workforce is a major challenge for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who oversees economic policy for the world’s top oil exporter, where unemployment stands at 12.8 per cent.

The Gulf Arab state, which has struggled for years to create jobs for its nationals, aims to create 1.2 million jobs by 2022 to reduce unemployment to 9 per cent, a senior labour ministry official said.

The selection of Mr Al Rajhi, who chairs the Council of Saudi Chambers of Commerce and is the scion of an Islamic banker billionaire, follows a broader trend of tapping the private sector to fill top government posts, including the housing minister and a senior defence official.

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Steffen Hertog of the London School of Economics said the move might also be aimed at rebuilding trust with the business community, which has been frustrated by the rapid pace of some economic reforms and unnerved by an anti-corruption purge last year.

Under that secretive campaign, scores of royals and top businessmen were detained for months at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh. Most were freed after reaching settlements with the government.

The reform-minded crown prince is trying to diversify the Arab world's largest economy away from oil exports and open up Saudis' cloistered lifestyles by easing strict social rules and promoting entertainment in the deeply conservative Muslim kingdom.

King Salman on Saturday also appointed Abdullatif bin Abdulaziz bin Abdulrahman Al Sheikh as minister of Islamic affairs, call and guidance. He has previously headed the kingdom's religious police, whose powers were curbed two years ago as part of broader reforms.

The royal orders set up a new Ministry of Culture, extracting it from the information ministry as part of a drive to capture more Saudi leisure spending at home amid a budget deficit caused by low oil prices.

Prince Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan Al Saud, who was appointed in April to the board of a newly-established General Culture Authority, was named culture minister.

He already has several top positions, including governor of a commission to develop a historic tourism destination in the country's north and chairman of the Saudi Research and Marketing Group, which is closely linked to King Salman’s branch of the royal family.

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King Salman also ordered the formation of royal commissions for the environment and the holy city of Mecca, and an administration for preserving historical areas in the Red Sea city of Jeddah.

Maps tweeted by state media showed that six nature reserves established by the orders - "to reestablish wildlife, enhance their development and promote eco-tourism" - covered some 265,000 square kilometres of territory.

One of the sites is named for the king and another, located between the proposed NEOM business zone and a Red Sea tourism project, for the crown prince.

The royal orders also named several new deputies in the ministries of interior, telecommunications, transport and energy, industry and minerals, and appointed new heads to the Royal Commission for Jubail and Yanbu and the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy.