Last updated: January 30, 2015 2:30 pm
Saudi king stamps his authority with staff shake-up and handouts
Simeon Kerr in Riyadh
Saudi Arabia's new monarch, King Salman
King Salman, Saudi Arabia’s new monarch,
has unveiled a package of populist handouts and an overhaul of key security, political and economic officials as he seeks to stamp his authority on the kingdom a week after taking the throne.
The 79 year-old Salman announced projects, including investment in utilities worth SAR20bn ($5.3bn), and granted state employees a two-months’ salary bonus, among other benefits, the official Saudi news agency reported. Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya channel estimated the overall spending pledge at almost $30bn.
Addressing his people, the king tweeted that: “You deserve more and whatever I do will never meet your right.”
The IMF has urged Saudi Arabia, which spends about half its budget on current spending such as salaries, to restrain expenditure on wage growth, especially since oil prices have halved
over the past few months.
The personnel shake-up leaves the country’s most powerful positions in more conservative hands and also removes sons of the popular late King Abdullah from influential positions, which could play badly with the Saudi public.
Changes of top security posts — significant given the regional threats the country faces from Sunni jihadi militants — saw the intelligence chief, Khalid bin Bandar, replaced by a commoner, retired General Khalid bin al-Humaidan. The national security chief, Bandar bin Sultan, was removed from his post, and the National Security Council he headed was dissolved.
The NSC was one of 12 committees responsible for political, economic and security policies that were disbanded by the king and replaced with two councils.
The nine-member Council for Political and Security Affairs will be chaired by the interior minister, Prince Mohammed bin Naif, who was named deputy crown prince when Salman ascended to the throne.
“Mohammed has for some time been dubbed a de facto prime minister given his powerful interior minister’s role,” said London-based Middle East analyst Neil Partrick. “This new body could give him greater formal weight over internal matters.”
The king’s son, the 30-year-old Mohammed bin Salman, who was appointed defence minister last week, will head the 22-member Council for Economic and Development Affairs, which looks set to replace the work of the now defunct Supreme Economic Commission.
Lower oil revenues are one of the greatest challenges to the new government, and there has been speculation that the government may seek to raise some debt, introduce reforms and bolster the private sector in a bid to diversify away from hydrocarbons.
The monarch also reshuffled the cabinet, providing a mixture of continuity and changes that may indicate a shift policy priorities.
The removal of the chiefs of the justice ministry and the religious police, who have been described as relative liberals, gives a conservative stamp to social policy. New ministers of education, health, information and agriculture were also appointed.
Other key portfolios remain unchanged, including Ali al-Naimi, oil minister, finance minister Ibrahim al-Assaf, and Saud al-Faisal in the foreign ministry.
The changes include a reshuffling of the pack of powerful royals.
The king’s son, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, who already played an important role at the oil ministry, was promoted to deputy oil minister.
Salman also removed two of the late king’s sons, Turki and Mishaal bin Abdullah, from their respective posts as governors of Riyadh and Mecca. They were replaced by members of former King Faisal’s branch of the family.
However, Abdullah’s most influential son, Muteb, remains in position as minister for the powerful praetorian national guard.
Salman also appointed a lawyer, Mohammed Jadaan, as new head of the stock market regulator, which will oversee the opening of the $500bn bourse to foreign investors this year.
The change at the bourse, in the face of significant domestic concern about foreign influence, is one of several economic reforms that will define the modernisation legacy of Abdullah.
The precarious security situation in the kingdom was underlined on Friday when gunmen opened fire on two US citizens in the eastern al-Ahsa province. It was unclear who carried out the attack.
A police spokesman told the official news agency that one of the victims had been wounded while driving in a region where the kingdom’s minority Shia community have been protesting for an end to discrimination.
An increase in attacks against foreigners has caused concern among the expatriate community. Riyadh quelled an al-Qaeda insurgency between 2003 and 2006 that targeted westerners.
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