Jamal Khashoggi’s murder made world headlines for weeks, but almost three months on, we are still waiting for answers.
Saudi Arabia’s King Salman has appointed a new foreign minister as part of a major cabinet reshuffle, according to state media.
A royal decree on Wednesday demoted outgoing chief diplomat Adel al-Jubeir to the position of minister of state for foreign affairs and named Ibrahim al-Assaf as his replacement.
Thursday’s shake-up is the first since the October 2 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom’s consulate in the Turkish city of Istanbul by a Saudi hit squad.
The murder, as well as the Saudi government’s shifting narratives, sparked international outrage and jeopardised Riyadh’s relations with its Western allies.
Turkey and Western intelligence agencies have either hinted at or directly named King Salman’s son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as the mastermind behind the Saudi journalist’s murder but the monarch left his heir’s portfolios unchanged in the latest reshuffle.
Marwan Kabalan, head of policy analysis at the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, said the move did not come as a surprise given that al-Jubeir was seen as a “leftover from the [late] King Abdullah era”, referring to the former Saudi monarch who died in 2015.
“We’ve been expecting al-Jubeir to be out for some time. Even before the Khashoggi affair,” Kabalan said in reference to the journalist’s killing.
“But I now think he’s been used as another scapegoat in this issue.”
Authorities in Riyadh admitted to the killing of the government critic in an operation they described as being undertaken by “rogue elements”.
“I think he [al-Jubeir] is out now – perhaps at the right time for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. As I said, the crown prince wanted to use somebody as a scapegoat and also hold him responsible,” Kabalan added.
“Because the Saudi consul general in Istanbul was very much involved in the killing of Khashoggi and that would fall under al-Jubeir.”
Rami Khouri, a journalism professor at the American University of Beirut and a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School, said the reshuffle appeared to be merely an image makeover.
“I think this is more process of changes being made to show the world that changes are being made probably without any real change in policy, but we’ll have to wait and see.”
Khouri added that the “decision-making” currently in Saudi Arabia “is like the Soviet Union in 1960s”.
“You really don’t know what’s going on until a few weeks or months down the road when a decision is made,” he said.
Referring to al-Jubeir being stripped of his post, Khouri noted that the move seemed to not be a “real demotion”, since the former chief diplomat was not fired, but a “sharing of responsibility”.
“They needed a more experienced fellow at the top and they brought in al-Assaf who served for decades in Saudi Arabia.”
A former finance minister, al-Assaf was among dozens of royal family members, government officials and top businessmen detained during an “anti-corruption purge” in November 2017 that Prince Mohammed had engineered.
Al-Assaf was released two months later, reportedly without penalty. He returned to his roles as a board member at state oil giant Aramco and an adviser to King Salman.
Other notable cabinet changes include the appointment of Prince Abdullah bin Bandar bin Abdulaziz as chief of the National Guard, replacing Prince Miteb bin Abdullah.
General Khalid bin Qirar al-Harbi was also named general security chief, while Musaed al-Aiban was appointed national security adviser.