King Salman reshuffles cabinet as Saudi grapples with aftermath of Khashoggi’s murder

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman ordered a major government reshuffle on Thursday, replacing key security and political figures including the kingdom’s foreign minister, as the gulf nation struggles to maintain global relations after the murder of critic Jamal Khashoggi.

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman ordered a major government reshuffle on Thursday, replacing key security and political figures including the kingdom’s foreign minister, as the gulf nation struggles to maintain global relations after the murder of critic Jamal Khashoggi.

The incident has resulted in international condemnation and raised several questions about Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ability to guide the kingdom through a period of far-reaching social and economic reform. It has also renewed attention on the Saudi-led war in Yemen, which has led to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

King Salman has ordered a shakeup of the kingdom’s two supreme councils that oversee matters related to the economy and security. Both councils are headed by the king’s son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose powers, including roles as deputy prime minister and defence minister, were left untouched.

The king also appointed a new national security advisor and head of the National Guard, and named new ministers for education, media, and the sports authority. A royal decree to restructure the Political and Security Affairs Council, which is headed by Crown Prince Mohammed, was also issued.

What changes have been made?

Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir was demoted to minister of state for foreign affairs, and replaced by a former finance minister, Ibrahim Al-Assaf, as per a royal decree.  

Al-Assaf holds seats on the boards of the state-owned oil company Saudi Aramco and the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund. Prince Mohammed oversees both companies.

Prince Abdullah bin Bandar, son of Prince Bandar Al Saud, has been named the new head of the National Guard. The force is tasked primarily with the protection of the Al Saud ruling family. Prince Abdullah was previously the deputy governor of Mecca.

An important change can be said to be Turki al-Sheikh being replaced as head of the sports authority by Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki al-Faisal.

Turki al-Sheikh was a close aide of Crown Prince Mohammed. He was named as head of the kingdom’s general entertainment authority, a body created in recent years to help organise and promote concerts and other events that had long been banned in the conservative country.

Al-Sheikh’s appointment as head of entertainment means he no longer oversees a cybersecurity and programming body that was led by Saud al-Qahtani, a close aide to Crown Prince Mohammed who was fired from his post and placed under sanctions by the US treasury department for helping mastermind Khashoggi’s murder in Istanbul.

Khaled Al-Harbi was appointed head of the Public Security Directorate in place of Saud bin Abdul Aziz Hilal. Musaed Al Aiban was appointed as Saudi Arabia’s National Security adviser.

The Minister of Commerce and Investment Dr. Majed Al-Qassabi will be responsible for the General Commission for Exhibitions and Conferences. Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz, the Kingdom’s ambassador in London, was relieved of his post. Turki Al-Shabana was appointed as Minister of Media, and Hamad Al-Sheikh was appointed as Minister of Education.

Ali Shihabi, founder of the Arabia Foundation, a think tank close to Riyadh’s royal family, told the Independent that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose name is often abbreviated to MbS, was “consolidating power”. Shihabi said: “Not only the cabinet, also new royal governors are very close to him.”

Saudi’s worst diplomatic crisis

The fallout over Khashoggi’s murder is widely regarded as Saudi’s worst diplomatic crisis since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, wherein most of the hijackers were identified as Saudi nationals.

“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,” said Mohammed Alyahya, a senior fellow at the Gulf Research Centre, AFP reported.

The overhaul comes after Saudi Arabia said last week that it was creating government bodies to boost oversight of its intelligence operations after Khashoggi’s killing.

The kingdom admitted that 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 raised doubts over the image of the 33-year-old crown prince, who controls all major areas of power. “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,” said Ryan Bohl, from the US geopolitical think tank Stratfor, as per the AFP report.

MbS’s wings clipped?

Khashoggi’s death seems to have had a major impact on the decision-making process in Riyadh. The fallout from the assassination in Istanbul has wounded Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the heir to the throne, and given a second attempt to an old guard of elders, whose views are once more being heard.

Some decisions are now being made away from the crown prince, who Turkey alleges has been directly involved in Khashoggi’s assassination, and has since tried to deflect blame to fall guys, including his most prominent domestic aide.

Ahmed bin Abdulaziz’s, the sole surviving full brother of King Salman, return to Riyadh, earlier in November, was largely interpreted as a first step in the restoration of an old order, where decision making was made after extensive consultation among elders.

King Salman has taken more of a chairman role since appointing Prince Mohammed as his heir. Sources have said that King Salman plays a more visible and vocal role in meetings.

“MbS [the common acronym for crown prince Mohammad bin Salman] has had his wings clipped,” the source told the Guardian. “There’s no doubt about it. He doesn’t have the same swagger, and he’s just as scared of a mis-step as the next guy. That’s a big change.”

Elton Gomes is a staff writer at Qrius

Jamal KhasoggiSaudi Arabia