Saudi Arabia names new foreign minister in generational shift

Riyandh, Saudi Arabia Updated: Oct 24, 2019, 03:30 PM IST

File Photo Photograph:(AFP)

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Prince Faisal bin Farhan, a one-time adviser to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and currently ambassador to Germany, will replace Ibrahim al-Assaf. 

Saudi Arabia has appointed a new foreign minister with experience in Western capitals and loyalty to the powerful crown prince, in what observers say is a generational shift being driven by the young ruler.

Prince Faisal bin Farhan, a one-time adviser to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and currently ambassador to Germany, will replace Ibrahim al-Assaf who was in the role for less than a year.

Assaf, who was appointed in the aftermath of the murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the kingdom's Istanbul consulate, was demoted to minister of state.

While Assaf was charged with mending the kingdom's reputation in the immediate aftermath of the scandal, Prince Faisal has more repair work to do and must also contend with the kingdom's dangerously tense relations with Iran. 

The new minister has "really strong ties with traditional Saudi allies", said Cinzia Bianco, a Middle East analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations. "He is dynamic and proactive."

But analysts also pointed to the 45-year-old prince's background with Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler, as well as his younger brother Prince Khaled, a former ambassador to Washingon he also served as an adviser.

"It is part of a generational shift creating a new class of leaders in Saudi Arabia that are disconnected from the old power brokers, helping MBS to consolidate his power without having to rely on the old guard," said Andreas Kreig, a professor at King's College London.

"This, in turn, guarantees loyalty and control amid a centralisation of power in the hands of the crown prince. Foreign policy decisions are being made inside the crown prince's office with ministers being executioners not actual decision-makers." 

Prince Mohammed, a self-styled moderniser shaking up the conservative petrostate, has sought to shore up his reputation in the wake of the Khashoggi scandal which tested longstanding alliances with Western powers.

"A new Saudi political dynasty is appearing," tweeted Aziz Alghashian, a Saudi foreign policy expert at the University of Essex.

Prince Faisal, who was appointed as envoy to Berlin earlier this year, "has really strong ties with traditional Saudi allies, US and even a more European outlook than would be traditionally the case," said Bianco. 

He takes office as the kingdom continues to deal with the aftermath of Khashoggi's killing, its worst diplomatic crisis since the September 11, 2001 attacks, in which most of the hijackers were identified as Saudi nationals.

"The outgoing wasn’t really a foreign policy person. The newly appointed is very smart, very articulate and he has also been very strident in his statements," said James Dorsey, a Middle East expert at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

"MBS needs someone who is much more strident. MBS has a lot of repairs to do and the new foreign minister has got what MBS needs."

The kingdom has also been navigating a spike in tensions with its regional arch-rival Iran since attacks on Saudi oil facilities last month that temporarily halved the kingdom's crude output and sent world prices soaring. 

Yemen's Iran-backed Huthi rebels claimed responsibility, but US officials blamed Tehran itself, charging that the rebels did not have the range or sophistication to target the facilities.

Tehran has denied involvement and warned of "total war" in the event of any retaliatory attack on its territory.

Earlier this month, Tehran said that an Iranian-flagged oil tanker was hit by two explosions off the coast of Saudi Arabia, sparking new fears of conflict.

As part of the reshuffle announced overnight, transport minister Nabil al-Amoudi was also replaced, with Saleh bin Nasser al-Jasser installed in the role.

The change comes after a fire engulfed a new high-speed train station in the western city of Jeddah in September, injuring five people.

As well, 35 foreigners were killed last week when a bus collided with another heavy vehicle near the Islamic holy city of Medina.