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Saudi king shakes up Cabinet after Khashoggi's killing, affirming crown prince's grip on power

Saudi king shakes up Cabinet after Khashoggi's killing, affirming crown prince's grip on power
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, left, speaks to his father, King Salman, at a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on Dec. 9. (Associated Press)

Saudi Arabia's King Salman issued a wide-ranging overhaul of top government posts Thursday, including naming a new foreign minister, following international fallout from the killing of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi nearly three months ago.

He also ordered a shake-up of the kingdom's supreme council that oversees security matters. The council is headed by the king's son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose powers including roles as deputy prime minister and defense minister were untouched in the overhaul.

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The changes appear to further consolidate the crown prince's grip on power by appointing to key posts advisors and members of the royal family seen as loyal to him.

It may also signal further efforts to show that changes are being made after the U.S. Senate passed a resolution saying it believes the crown prince is ultimately to blame for Khashoggi's grisly killing inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.

As the crown prince struggles to convince many in Washington and other Western capitals that he had nothing to do with Khashoggi's killing, the soft-spoken Adel Jubeir was replaced as foreign minister by Ibrahim Assaf, a former longtime finance minister. Jubeir was appointed to minister of state for foreign affairs at the Foreign Ministry.

Assaf is well known to international investors, having led several Saudi delegations to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. He served as finance minister under King Fahd and King Abdullah.

Assaf sits on the boards of oil giant Saudi Aramco and the kingdom's sovereign wealth fund. The crown prince oversees both entities. Assaf also holds a doctorate in economics from Colorado State University and a master's degree from the University of Denver, according to his biography on Aramco's website.

Assaf had been serving as a minister of state last year when he was reportedly detained at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, along with dozens of high-ranking officials and princes in an anti-corruption sweep led by the crown prince. Shortly after, Assaf appeared back at a Cabinet meeting to the surprise of many.

The government did not name those detained nor disclose what crimes they were suspected of committing. The Associated Press could not independently confirm reports of Assaf's arrest. The opaque anti-corruption sweep helped Prince Mohammed consolidate power and net the government more than $13 billion in settlements.

The changes announced Thursday include aides to the crown prince, including Musaed Aiban as national security advisor — in addition to other positions he holds — and former media Minister Awwad Awwad as advisor to the royal court. Khalid Harbi was named as head of general security.

Turki Sheikh, a confidant of the crown prince, was removed as head of the Sports Authority and replaced by Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki al Faisal. This means Sheikh no longer oversees a cybersecurity and programming body that was led by Saud Qahtani, a close aide to the crown prince who was fired from his post and sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department for helping to mastermind the plot that led to Khashoggi's killing.

Khashoggi wrote critically of the crown prince in columns for the Washington Post. After denying any knowledge of Khashoggi's death for weeks, Saudi authorities eventually settled on the explanation that he was killed in an operation masterminded by former advisors to Mohammed. The kingdom denies the crown prince had any involvement.

Sheikh will now lead the General Entertainment Authority, which was created in recent years to help organize and promote concerts and other events that had long been banned in the conservative country.

Turki Shabbaneh, who has held positions in privately owned Saudi TV channels, was named minister of media. Hamad Sheikh, a royal court advisor and former college dean who studied in the U.S., was appointed minister of education.

The king's eldest son, Prince Sultan bin Salman, was removed as head of the tourism authority. He will lead a new space agency. In 1985, he became the first Arab and Muslim astronaut to fly in space.

Prince Abdullah bin Bandar was named head of the National Guard. The force is tasked primarily with the protection of the ruling Saud family. Abdullah had been deputy governor of Mecca.

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