Saudi Arabia reshuffles cabinet with focus on culture

King Salman names a prince linked to the purchase of a Leonardo da Vinci painting of Jesus as culture minister.

Saudi Arabia''s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud talks during the opening of 29th Arab Summit in Dhahran
King Salman ordered the establishment of a new culture ministry [File: Reuters]

Saudi Arabia has announced another cabinet reshuffle with a heavy focus on culture as the kingdom undergoes a major overhaul.

The move on Saturday is the second significant government change since the June 2017 appointment of the king’s son, Mohammed bin Salman, often referred to as MBS, as heir to the throne. The crown prince also serves as Saudi Arabia’s deputy prime minister.

In royal decrees carried on Saturday by state news agency SPA, King Salman ordered the establishment of a new culture ministry and appointed a prince linked to the purchase of a Leonardo da Vinci painting of Jesus to head the new entity.

The newly appointed Prince Badr bin Abdullah was named by the New York Times as the mystery buyer of da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” for a record-breaking $450m at an auction last year.

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

Prince Badr, who was appointed in April to the board of a newly established General Culture Authority, has several top positions, including governor of a commission to develop an historical tourism destination in the country’s north and chairman of the Saudi Research and Marketing Group, which is closely linked to King Salman’s branch of the royal family.

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

Economy and unemployment

Private sector businessman Ahmed bin Suleiman al-Rajhi was also named on Saturday as minister of labour and social development, succeeding Ali bin Nasser al-Ghafis.

Getting hundreds of thousands of unemployed Saudis into the workforce is a major challenge for MBS, who oversees economic policy for the world’s top oil exporter, where unemployment stands at 12.8 percent.

The Gulf Arab state, which has struggled for years to create jobs for its nationals, aims to create 1.2 million jobs by 2022 to reduce unemployment to nine percent, a senior labour ministry official told Reuters news agency.

The crown prince has steadily consolidated his grip on power since sidelining his cousin last year.

MBS is trying to diversify the Arab world’s largest economy away from oil exports and has pledged a “moderate, open” Saudi Arabia.

Over the past year, he has spearheaded 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.

But under that campaign, scores of royals and top businessmen were detained for months at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in the Saudi capital, Riyadh. Most were freed after reaching settlements with the government.

Activists behind bars

King Salman also appointed Abdullatif bin Abdulaziz bin Abdulrahman al-Sheikh as minister of Islamic affairs, call and guidance. He has previously headed the kingdom’s religious police, whose powers were curbed two years ago as part of broader reforms.

He also ordered the formation of royal commissions for the environment and the holy city of Mecca, and an administration for preserving historical areas in the Red Sea city of Jeddah.

The royal orders also named several new deputies in the ministries of interior, telecommunications, transport and energy, industry and minerals, and appointed new heads to the Royal Commission for Jubail and Yanbu and the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy.

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 campaigners for women’s right to drive and to end Saudi’s male guardianship system.

At least four activists have been released, according to Amnesty International. The fate of the others remains unclear.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies