Vastavam web: Saudi Arabia’s new foreign minister struck a note of defiance Friday in the face of international outrage over critic Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, rejecting the kingdom was in crisis and his predecessor had been demoted. Ibrahim 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 as foreign minister in a major government shake-up on Thursday ordered by King Salman.
The surprise reshuffle was seen partly as an attempt to elevate the kingdom’s marginalised old guard, adding a veneer of checks and balances in the policy decisions of 33-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who faces intense global scrutiny over the October 2 murder of journalist Khashoggi. “But all in all, we are not going through a crisis, we are going through a transformation,” he added, referring to social and economic reforms spearheaded by the crown prince. Assaf, 69, inherits the ministry after a series of combative foreign policy moves by the crown prince, who along with regional allies imposed a blockade on neighbouring Qatar, launched a military campaign in Yemen and engaged in a bitter diplomatic row with Canada.
Topping it all, Khashoggi’s murder in Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul consulate by what it calls “rogue” agents is testing relations with key ally Washington, particularly after a US Senate resolution recently held Prince Mohammed responsible for the killing. In Thursday’s reshuffle, Jubeir was appointed minister of state for foreign affairs, fuelling speculation that he had been demoted after he failed to quell global criticism over Khashoggi. “This is far from the truth,” Assaf said, adding that Jubeir had performed with distinction.
Jubeir’s new role, he insisted, was tantamount to a division of labour and not a demotion, in a bid to accelerate 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,” Assaf said. Saudi officials say he was released after being cleared of any wrongdoing, and he subsequently led a government delegation to the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year.
His reappointment to a cabinet role indicates the government is seeking to slowly “rehabilitate” the experienced old guard, widely seen to be sidelined by the young prince, observers say. “King Salman is seeking to bolster his son by appointing seasoned technocrats like Assaf who are not from MBS’s inner circle, indirectly reinstating an internal system of checks and balances that was swept away in his drive to consolidate power,” said Becca Wasser. “Adding experienced government hands from an older generation, will serve to check some of MBS’s impulses,” the policy analyst at the US-based RAND Corporation told AFP. Assaf, who is on the boards of state oil giant Aramco and the vast Public Investment Fund, said his appointment as the top diplomat would help bring