Ebrahim Al Assaf
Ebrahim Al Assaf Image Credit: AFP

Riyadh - Saudi Arabia’s new foreign minister struck a note of defiance Friday in the face of international outrage over critic Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, rejecting the kingdom was in crisis and his predecessor had been demoted.

Ebrahim Al Assaf, a former veteran finance minister replaced Adel Al Jubeir as foreign minister in a major government reshuffle on Thursday ordered by King Salman Bin Abdul Aziz.

Speaking to AFP in his first interview since his appointment, Al Assaf said the restructuring was motivated not by the Jamal Khashoggi affair, but the need to make the government machinery more efficient.

“The issue of Jamal Khashoggi... really saddened us, all of us,” Assaf told AFP at his residence in Riyadh, adorned with mahogany furniture, a wall-mounted elephant tusk and other hunting trophies. “But all in all, we are not going through a crisis, we are going through a transformation,” he added, referring to social and economic reforms spearheaded by the crown prince.

When asked whether his biggest foreign policy challenge was to repair the kingdom’s tarnished reputation, Al Assaf replied: “I wouldn’t say ‘repair’ because the relationship between my country and a vast majority of countries in the world is in excellent shape.”

Before him, Al Jubeir also sought to vigorously defend Saudi Arabia on the international stage over Khashoggi’s murder.

In Thursday’s reshuffle, Al Jubeir was appointed minister of state for foreign affairs, fuelling speculation that he had been demoted after he failed to quell global criticism over Khashoggi.

“This is far from the truth,” Al Assaf said, adding that Al Jubeir had performed with distinction.

Al Jubeir’s new role, he insisted, was tantamount to a division of labour and not a demotion, in a bid to accelerate the task of remaking a ministry known to be overly bureaucratic. “Adel represented Saudi Arabia and will continue to represent Saudi Arabia... around the world,” Al Assaf said. “We complement each other.”

A seasoned bureaucrat, Al Assaf was briefly held in Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton hotel last year along with hundreds of elite princes and businessmen in a crackdown against corruption.

Saudi officials say he was released after being cleared of any wrongdoing, and he subsequently led a government delegation to the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year.

The elevation of seasoned allies in Thursday’s reshuffle has bolstered the authority of Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, after the removal of younger aides in his inner circle implicated in Khashoggi’s murder, including former royal court advisor Saud Al Qahtani.

Al Assaf, who is on the boards of state oil giant Aramco and the vast Public Investment Fund, said his appointment as the top diplomat would help bring his financial experience to foreign affairs amid a current “dip” in the economy.

“Economic relationships now dominate foreign” affairs, Assaf said.

“I say with all modesty that my experience will help.”