No crisis, new Saudi foreign chief insists, as king revamps govt

Mr Ibrahim al-Assaf says Saudi Arabia is going through a transformation.
Mr Ibrahim al-Assaf says Saudi Arabia is going through a transformation.

RIYADH • Saudi Arabia's new Foreign Minister struck a note of defiance last Friday in the face of international outrage over critic Jamal Khashoggi's murder, denying the kingdom was in crisis and that his predecessor had been demoted.

Mr Ibrahim al-Assaf, a former veteran finance minister who was briefly detained last year in what Riyadh said was an anti-corruption sweep, replaced Mr Adel al-Jubeir as Foreign Minister in a major government shake-up last 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 to the policy decisions of 33-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who faces intense global scrutiny over the Oct 2 murder of Mr Khashoggi.

Speaking to Agence France-Presse in his first interview since his appointment, Mr Assaf insisted the restructuring was motivated not by the Khashoggi affair, but the need to make the government machinery more efficient.

"The issue of Jamal Khashoggi... really saddened us, all of us," he told AFP at his residence in Riyadh.

"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.

Mr 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, Mr Khashoggi's murder in Saudi Arabia's Istanbul consulate by what Riyadh calls "rogue" agents is testing relations with key ally Washington, particularly after a US Senate resolution recently held Prince Mohammed responsible for the journalist's death.

When asked whether his biggest foreign policy challenge was to repair the kingdom's tarnished reputation, Mr Assaf replied: "I wouldn't say 'repair' because the relationship between my country and a vast majority of countries in the world is in excellent shape."

"Economic relationships now dominate foreign affairs," he added.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 30, 2018, with the headline 'No crisis, new Saudi foreign chief insists, as king revamps govt'. Print Edition | Subscribe