World News

Saudi Prince’s Allies Assume Key Positions to Help Drive Reforms

Posted June 2, 2018 4:14 p.m. EDT

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Saudi Arabia installed several new ministers in a series of royal decrees on Saturday, putting allies of the powerful crown prince in key positions to help push forward his efforts to diversify the economy away from oil and to make life more enjoyable for citizens.

The decrees by King Salman, the crown prince’s father, put a businessman in charge of labor policy, a moderate cleric at the helm of the Islamic affairs ministry and a close friend of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the head of a newly created ministry of culture.

The new culture ministry, which was split off from the Information Ministry, is headed by Prince Bader bin Abdullah bin Farhan Al Saud, who is in his early 30s. The young prince was the mystery buyer of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting “Salvator Mundi,” which sold for a record $450.3 million at auction last year.

U.S. intelligence officials and Arabs familiar with the details of the sale said at the time that the real buyer was the crown prince. But Saudi officials provided an alternative story.

They said Prince Bader had purchased the painting for the ministry of culture in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates — a close Saudi ally — so it could hang in the Louvre Abu Dhabi museum.

Prince Bader is from a minor branch of the Saudi royal family. He previously served as the chairman of a media conglomerate that is controlled by King Salman’s branch of the family, but resigned to become minister.

Since his father became king of the ultraconservative kingdom in 2015, the crown prince has been pushing for a range of economic, cultural and religious reforms.

These changes have included removing the power to arrest from the country’s once-feared religious police, opening commercial cinemas for the first time in decades and promising to lift the ban on women driving, which is scheduled to end June 24.

Ahmed bin Suleiman al-Rajhi, a private-sector businessman, was named minister of labor. The kingdom’s economy has been shaken by the decline in oil prices, which has undermined the state budget. That could make it harder for the hundreds of thousands of young Saudis entering the job market every year to find jobs.

Crown Prince Mohammed has spoken of increasing the role played by the kingdom’s private sector, where Rajhi has spent his career. He is an heir to a Saudi banking empire founded by his father and has been active in a number of other businesses.

Abdullatif Al Sheikh, a former head of the country’s religious police, was named as minister of Islamic Affairs. In recent years, Sheikh has expressed views in line with Prince Mohammed’s reforms, voicing his support for women’s employment and saying he did not oppose gender mixing — positions considered liberal by many of the country’s more conservative clerics.

Since promoting it became official government policy, women’s employment has been rising in recent years, and in some places it is more common to see unmarried men and women mixing socially.