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Saudi ruler King Abdullah reshuffles his cabinet

King Abdullah took the step as a response to growing criticism of the government

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz undertook the biggest cabinet reshuffle of his 10-year reign on 8 December, part of a broader effort to respond to growing domestic criticism of the poor performance of some sectors of his government.

However, the cabinet portfolios remain unchanged. With Riyadh taking the lead in Opec’s decision to hold the cartel’s production steady, now is evidently not the time to instigate major government changes. Veteran oil minister Ali al-Naimi remains at his post, as does foreign minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, despite false rumours on social media that he was poised to step down after almost 40 years in the job. New ministers have been put in charge at the Islamic affairs, information, agriculture, higher education, telecommunications, health, social affairs and transport ministries, the official Saudi Press Agency reported. 

The most significant change is the replacement of long-serving minister of Islamic affairs, Sheikh Saleh al-Sheikh, with an Islamic scholar, Suleiman Aba al-Khail. Al-Khail is former president of one of Saudi Arabia’s largest public universities, Imam Muhammad ibn Saud Islamic University. This ministry has grown in importance, in light of the Islamic State group challenge to Saudi religious legitimacy. Al-Khail is a traditional conservative, but he has taken part in United Nations-backed forums on interfaith dialogue. He has also sought to separate Wahhabism, the dominant form of Islam in the kingdom, from more radical strains of Islam emerging from jihadist groups across the region. Al-Sheikh, whom al-Khail replaces, is a member of the kingdom’s leading religious family, and is descended from Mohammed Ibn Abdel-Wahhab, the 18th century founder of Wahhabism.

This change is significant, says Ali al-Ahmed, who heads the Institute of Gulf Affairs, a Saudi opposition think tank. “The removal of al-Sheikh means there are now no ministers from the Wahhab family in the cabinet, which suggests the Saudi leadership has no need for them anymore,” he says. According to al-Ahmed, the ruling family is looking to extend its reach, which means moving members of the al-Saud dynasty into senior positions. Recent decisions, such as appointing Khalid al-Faisal, a senior prince from the Al-Faisal wing of the family, to head the education ministry underline this trend.

There has been a drop in the number of Hejazis, Saudis from the more liberal Western province, in the cabinet. The replacement of AbdulAziz al-Khoujah as minister of information by a conservative Najdi, Abdulaziz al-Khudairi, is significant. Najdi Saudis originate from the more conservative central region, also the home region of the al-Sauds.

Given the king’s age – he is believed to be about 90 and in increasingly poor health – there is undoubtedly an element of clearing the decks in the new cabinet appointments. Abdullah knows that if he is to leave a lasting legacy, he has to act now. In this respect, the cabinet appointments also suggest an attempt to become more inclusive at balancing the many forces within Saudi society.

There is evidence too that Abdullah is concerned about tensions in the impoverished southwest of the country. For the first time since the Saudi state was established in 1932, a southerner, Mohammed al-Khayazie, former rector of Jazan University, has been given a major cabinet portfolio. Al-Khayazie takes responsibility for health. The marginalisation of southerners is seen as a potent cause of extremism. Many of the 9/11 terrorists were from the south, reflecting the alienation of the region’s youth from the Saudi mainstream and their susceptibility to radical conservative Islam.

The new appointments are part of Abdullah’s efforts to defuse domestic tensions while bolstering al-Saud influence on the major offices of state. The kingdom is set for a tough year. With lower oil prices comes the possibility that the country will record its first budget deficit for many years. This fear is particularly acute as the government continues to invest heavily in employment and infrastructure projects.

The king himself is believed to be unwell, as is his heir, Crown Prince Salman. In March, the last son of Saudi Arabia’s founder King Abdulaziz, Prince Muqrin was named deputy crown prince. Prince Muqrin is 69, and relatively youthful. His appointment, and the new cabinet, will shore up the Saudi status quo – at least for the time being.

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