By Spy Uganda Correspondent
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been named the kingdom’s prime minister in a cabinet reshuffle ordered by King Salman, according to a royal decree published by the official Saudi Press Agency on Tuesday.
Prince Mohammed is already de facto ruler of the world’s largest oil exporter, and the appointment formalises his role as leader of the kingdom’s government.
The crown prince, known by his initials MBS, previously served as deputy prime minister as well as defence minister. He is being replaced as defence minister by his younger brother, Khalid bin Salman, who was deputy defence minister.
The royal decree reaffirmed all the other senior ministers in their posts, including Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, Finance Minister Mohammed al-Jadaan and Investment Minister Khalid al-Falih.
By appointing MBS as prime minister, a role previously and typically held by the king, the 86-year-old monarch continues a slow but steady transfer of power in the kingdom.
The royal decree on Tuesday did not state the reasons behind the appointment, but the state-run news agency SPA said that the king who remains head of state will continue to chair cabinet meetings he attends.
In May, the king was hospitalised for medical examinations and treatments, SPA reported at the time.
The 37-year-old crown prince was already in charge of many of the kingdom’s major portfolios, including the economy, defence, oil, and internal security.
In April 2016, Prince Mohammed introduced Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia’s vision of the future, which is aimed at making the kingdom the heart of the Arab and Islamic world, an investment powerhouse, and a hub that connects three continents.
The initiative seeks to diversify and privatise the economy and make it less reliant on oil. By 2030, the initiative also aims to establish an e-government system.
MBS became heir to the throne in 2017, after he previously held the position of defence minister.
Prince Mohammed has changed Saudi Arabia radically since he rose to power as he led efforts to diversify the economy from dependence on oil, allowed women to drive and curbed the clerics’ power over society.
His reforms, however, have come with a massive crackdown on dissent, with activists, royals, women’s rights activists and businessmen jailed.
Earlier this year, he hosted United States President Joe Biden in the kingdom, in an attempt to rebuild bilateral relations with Washington over the killing of Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in 2018 by Saudi agents.
Sources have so far revealed that the prince has been named prime minister in a move that experts said would probably shield him from a potentially damaging lawsuit in the US in connection to his alleged role in the murder of the journalist Khashoggi.
The timing of the decision was seen by critics of the Saudi government as almost certainly linked to a looming court-ordered deadline next week. The Biden administration had been asked by a US judge to weigh in on whether Prince Mohammed ought to be protected by sovereign immunity in a case brought by the fiancee of Khashoggi, Hatice Cengiz. Such protection is usually granted to a world leader, such as a prime minister or a king.
In July the administration sought a delay in filing its response to the court, which had initially been sought by 1 August. John Bates, a district court judge, agreed to extend the deadline to 3 October. Among other issues, he called on the administration to state whether it believed Prince Mohammed ought to be granted immunity under rules that protect countries’ heads of state.
“It seems like [Prince Mohammed] has been advised to take this step before the response of the Biden administration was due on 3 October,” said Abdullah Alaoudh, the Gulf director at Dawn, a pro-democracy group based in Washington, who is a party to the Khashoggi lawsuit. “Practically, [becoming prime minister] makes no difference.”
Prince Mohammed has denied he had personal involvement in the Khashoggi murder. A US intelligence assessment found that the future king was likely to have ordered the killing.
The decision to name Prince Mohammed as prime minister would also likely assuage any lingering concerns in Saudi Arabia that the crown prince could be arrested or otherwise face legal challenges while travelling abroad.
The civil complaint against Prince Mohammed, which was filed by Cengiz in the federal district court of Washington DC in October 2020, alleges that he and other Saudi officials acted in a “conspiracy and with premeditation” when Saudi agents kidnapped, bound, drugged, tortured and killed Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.
Khashoggi, a former Saudi insider who had fled the kingdom and was a resident of Virginia in the south-east US, was a vocal critic of the crown prince and was actively seeking to counter Saudi online propaganda at the time when he was killed.