Saudi Cabinet reshuffled to focus on culture, religion

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has, over the past year, steered a modernisation campaign that aims to sell the country to foreign audiences and investors.
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has, over the past year, steered a modernisation campaign that aims to sell the country to foreign audiences and investors.

Culture ministry now a separate entity with new minister; labour, Islamic affairs ministers replaced

RIYADH • Saudi Arabia has announced another Cabinet reshuffle with a heavy focus on culture and religion, as the kingdom undergoes a major image overhaul.

This is the second significant government change since the appointment of Prince Mohammed bin Salman, son of the king, as heir to the region's most powerful throne.

The Crown Prince serves as deputy prime minister under his father, King Salman.

State news agency SPA announced last Saturday that King Salman had replaced the country's labour and Islamic affairs ministers - and named a prince linked to the purchase of a Leonardo da Vinci painting of Jesus as culture minister.

Saudi Arabia for decades has combined its culture and information ministries.

The decree announced that the culture ministry was now a separate entity under Prince Badr bin Abdullah, the man named by the New York Times as the mystery buyer of Da Vinci's Salvator Mundi for a record-breaking US$450 million (S$602 million) at an auction last year.

The Wall Street Journal later reported that he was acting on behalf of Prince Mohammed. The Louvre Abu Dhabi has said the religious painting was "acquired" by the Emirati authorities and would be put on display there.

Non-Muslim worship is banned in Saudi Arabia, but the kingdom has hosted high-ranking Christian clerics in recent months, notably from Lebanon and France.

Mr Ahmed bin Suleiman al-Rajhi, an engineer and private sector businessman, was on Saturday named labour and social development minister.

Sheikh Abdullatif bin Abdulaziz Al-Sheikh was named the new Islamic affairs minister.

Prince Mohammed, who has steadily consolidated his grip on power since sidelining his cousin as crown prince last June, has spearheaded a string of policy changes in ultraconservative Saudi Arabia, including reinstating cinemas and allowing women to drive.

Often referred to by his initials, MBS, the prince pledged a "moderate, open" Saudi Arabia in a televised keynote speech in October, telling international investors his country wanted "to live a normal life."

Saudi Arabia has been dominated by a harsh strain of conservative Islam since the 1979 seizure of the Grand Mosque of Mecca by around 400 extremists, a reaction against what they saw as Saudi society's plunge into immorality with entertainment, including cinema and television, and women taking jobs.

A bloody military assault dislodged them two weeks later, leaving scores dead on both sides. Their influence, however, has remained.

Over the past year, Prince Mohammed has steered a modernisation campaign that aims to sell the country to foreign audiences and investors, with hundreds of billions of dollars pledged to projects that will boost tourism and entertainment.

Last Friday, the Crown Prince earned a warning from Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the militant group's Yemen-based branch, over his "sinful projects", which AQAP said included a WWE wrestling event hosted by the kingdom in April.

Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy, will welcome millions of Muslim faithful on their annual pilgrimage to Mecca, Islam's holiest city, come August. The kingdom on Saturday announced it had set up a royal commission for Mecca, to be chaired by Prince Mohammed.

The Cabinet reshuffle comes as many activists remain behind bars after at least 11 of them were detained last month.

They have been identified by rights groups as mostly veteran women campaigners pushing for the right to drive and to end Saudi's male guardianship system.

SPA reported yesterday that the kingdom has temporarily released eight people accused of communicating with organisations opposed to the kingdom but is holding nine others in detention. The detainees were not identified.

Prince Mohammed is also seen as the driving force behind the detention of 200 royals and businessmen at the Ritz Carlton last November in what the government said was a crackdown on corruption.

Most have since been released after reaching settlements with the state.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 04, 2018, with the headline 'Saudi Cabinet reshuffled to focus on culture, religion'. Print Edition | Subscribe