Saudi Finance Minister sacked as world's biggest oil exporter tries to remake economy

Saudi Arabia's Finance Minister Ibrahim Al-Assaf arrives for a meeting with the International Monetary Fund and Gulf Cooperation Council in Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia's Finance Minister Ibrahim Al-Assaf arrives for a meeting with the International Monetary Fund and Gulf Cooperation Council in Riyadh.PHOTO: AFP

RIYADH (BLOOMBERG) - Saudi Arabia's Finance Minister for two decades was replaced on Monday (Oct 31), the latest in a series of government shake-ups as the world's largest oil exporter tries to remake its economy.

A royal order published by the official Saudi Press Agency excused Mr Ibrahim Al-Assaf from his post and replaced him with Mr Mohammed Al-Jadaan, formerly head of the kingdom's Capital Markets Authority. Mr Al-Assaf was appointed a state minister and will remain a member of the Cabinet.

Low crude prices have battered Saudi Arabia's economy and opened a hole in its budget that reached nearly US$100 billion (S$139 billion) last year. Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced Saudi Vision 2030 in April to overhaul the kingdom's economy and government. A Cabinet reshuffle in May replaced long-time Oil Minister Ali Al-Naimi as well as other top officials but left Mr Al-Assaf in his position, making him the longest serving minister in the kingdom.

Mr Al-Assaf was one of three officials who appeared on a popular Saudi talk show this month to defend recent austerity measures implemented by the government. The ministers' performance was criticised by many Saudis who said they were unconvinced.

Mr Al-Jadaan's appointment reflects the reform direction that Saudi Arabia is moving towards with "wide support" for a "younger generation of bureaucrats", said Mr Fahad Nazer, who worked at the Saudi Embassy in Washington and is now a political analyst at JTG Inc in Virginia.

"Most of these senior positions are going to younger, less experienced people, but people who are still very-well qualified and energetic," he said in a phone interview.

Mr Al-Jadaan, a lawyer appointed to the Capital Markets Authority in early 2015, oversaw the Saudi bourse opening to qualified foreign investors last year as well as several more recent changes intended to relax barriers to overseas investment. Saudi Arabia is on course to join MSCI's emerging-markets index in 2018, he said in a television interview with Bloomberg Markets Middle East last month.

The set of royal orders issued on Monday evening local time also replaced the public transport chief and the governor of the Saline Water Conversion Corporation, among other officials.

The orders did not say who would take Mr Al-Jadaan's job at the Capital Markets Authority. A spokesman there could not be reached for comment outside normal business hours in Riyadh.