Saudi labour minister replaced, councils reshuffled

The changes come as the Gulf kingdom prepares to implement social and economic reforms amid economic hardship.

    King Salman bin Abdulaziz has replaced Saudi Arabia's labour minister after recent statistics showed a rise in unemployment.

    In a royal decree read on state television on Friday, the king also reshuffled the country's top religious body, the Council of Senior Scholars, and the Shura Council, which advises the government.

    The changes come as the kingdom prepares to implement reforms proposed by its Vision 2030, which aims to reduce dependence on oil, attract foreign investments and promote more cultural openness.

    State television said King Salman had appointed Ali bin Nasser al-Ghafis as labour minister to replace Mufrej al-Haqbani. Haqbani had been in the position for only seven months

    Ghafis is currently head of the Technical and Vocational Training Corporation, a network of colleges set up to train young Saudis in the trades.

    Haqbani faced a slew of challenges in his time at the helm of the labour ministry, as a sharp drop in crude prices slashed government revenues and took a toll on economic growth.

    "This change was necessary because the ministry is facing a lot of issues - problems about the Saudi labour force and also private labour companies - that are obstructing its ability to implement reforms proposed in the Vision 2030,"  Ahmed Ali Ibrahim, a Saudi affairs specialist, told Al Jazeera. 

    "The previous minister was not all hands-on; there was a lot of slacking going on. The ministry needed a new vision.

    "We hope the new minister will succeed, since a lot of change is necessary. And we need someone dynamic to implement these necessary changes."

    READ MORE: Saudi Arabia agrees on plan to cut reliance on oil

    Job creation dried up this year amid severe cuts to public spending and delays in state payments to contractors, despite reforms geared towards creating jobs for Saudis.

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    The unemployment rate rose to 12.1 percent in the third quarter, up from 11.6 percent the previous quarter.

    The kingdom's economic reform plan, led by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has set targets to cut the jobless rate to 7 percent by 2030 and raise women's participation in the labour force to 30 percent from 22 percent.

    Saudi Arabia has also seen rare labour protests this year, as delayed payments by the state have pushed the kingdom's largest contractors into financial duress and led them to delay salary payments.

    After Saudi Arabia's oil revenues diminished drastically, the government was left owing billions of dollars to private firms, chiefly in the construction sector, which in turn could not pay their workers.

    Thousands of foreign employees - most of them from India, Pakistan and the Philippines - went unpaid for months and were left with limited access to food in labour camps. As the salary delays worsened, frustrated workers in some cases staged public protests.

    The government offered to pay for the workers' flights home and to cover food and accommodation when employers did not meet obligations.

    It has vowed to clear the arrears by this month.

    Council changes

    The king also changed the head of the country's consultative Shura Council and replaced several members of the assembly.

    Some members of the council have recently come under fire on social media for proposing or supporting cuts to some social benefits and the raising of prices of some basic services.

    On Friday, the king appointed 150 members of the council, including 30 women, some of whom were new.

    "Changes were for the good," Ibrahim told Al Jazeera. "Good, productive people got reassigned to their roles. And the new members all have really strong resumes. 

    "Also, we now have 30 women participating in this council. All in all this is a great thing."

    READ MORE: Let women drive, says Saudi prince

    Several moderate clerics were also appointed to the Council of Senior Scholars, seemingly to support the Vision 2030 reform plan, which has courted controversy in the conservative kingdom by calling for women's employment.

    New members include Mohammed al-Issa, a previous minister of justice and former member of the council often cited by liberals as the sort of moderate Wahhabi cleric that reformers in the royal family want to promote.

    The council remains dominated by older conservatives such as Saleh al-Fawzan and Saleh al-Luhaidan.

    In recent years, however, the government has promoted more moderate clerics and opened up the council to include scholars from the other main branches of Sunni jurisprudence beyond the Hanbali school followed by Wahhabis.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News and News Agencies


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