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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 22 January 2019

Saudi government reshuffle was anticipated, says official 

New foreign minister and other appointments mark return of older heads

Ibrahim Al Assaf, the new Saudi foreign minister, speaks to AFP at his residence in the Saudi capital Riyadh. AFP 
Ibrahim Al Assaf, the new Saudi foreign minister, speaks to AFP at his residence in the Saudi capital Riyadh. AFP 

Saudi Arabia’s government reshuffle was designed to ensure the Cabinet continues to have the best expertise, an official Saudi source said on Friday.

While the kingdom’s shake-up on Thursday came as a surprise to some, officials in Riyadh insist the changes had been anticipated.

The latest Cabinet appointments come nearly four years after Saudi King Salman ascended to the throne and is the first significant reshuffle since January 2015.

“Four years is the normal term for the Council of Ministers so a change was anticipated,” the Saudi official said.

The reshuffle, which saw the appointment of a new foreign minister, chief of National Guard and general security chief, among others, was seen partly as an attempt to elevate the kingdom’s marginalised old guard.

Mr Al Assaf, a former veteran finance minister who was briefly detained last year in what Riyadh said was an anti-corruption sweep, replaced Adel Al Jubeir.

The new minister also denied that his predecessor, now Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, had been demoted.

“This is far from the truth,” Mr Al Assaf said.

He said the former foreign minister had performed with distinction and that Mr Al Jubeir’s new role was tantamount to a division of labour and not a demotion, to speed up the task of remaking a ministry known to be overly bureaucratic.

“Adel represented Saudi Arabia and will continue to represent Saudi Arabia around the world,” Mr Al Assaf said. “We complement each other.”

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Born in 1949 in Qassim province, the new minister started his career in 1971 as a lecturer in economics at the King Abdul Aziz Military Academy.

Over the next four decades, Mr Al Assaf held prominent posts in the kingdom and the US, including Saudi executive director at the International Monetary Fund in Washington and minister of state in Saudi Arabia.

In 1996 he was appointed finance minister, a post he would hold for 22 years.

Mr Al Assaf inherits the ministry after some strong foreign policy moves by Prince Mohammed. The Qatar crisis, a diplomatic row with Canada and the three-year war in Yemen were some of the challenges faced by Mr Al Jubeir.

When asked whether his biggest foreign policy challenge was to polish the kingdom’s reputation, Mr Al Assaf replied: “The relationship between my country and a vast majority of countries in the world is in excellent shape.”

In November last year, Mr Al Assaf was briefly held in Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton hotel with hundreds of elite princes and businessmen, in what the government called a crackdown on corruption.

He was released after being cleared of any wrongdoing and returned to his official duties.

The elevation of seasoned allies in Thursday’s reshuffle has bolstered the authority of Prince Mohammed.

Mr Al Assaf, who is on the boards of state oil company Aramco and the vast Public Investment Fund, said his appointment to the post would help bring his financial experience to foreign affairs amid a current “dip” in the economy.

The top crude exporter, facing a sharp fall in oil prices, is scrambling to restore confidence in foreign investors rattled by a series of what many see as rash foreign policy decisions.

“Economic relationships now dominate foreign affairs,” Mr Al Assaf said.

Updated: December 29, 2018 10:31 PM

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