Saudi Arabia’s King appointed new ministers as broadest reshuffle

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah appointed new ministers for health, higher education, transport, agriculture, information and Islamic affairs Monday as part of the kingdom’s broadest reshuffle of second-tier posts in years.

The most important government portfolios, including finance, oil, interior, foreign affairs and defense, were not changed in the reshuffle, which was announced in a royal decree carried by state media.

The decree said the reshuffle was in preparation for the kingdom’s 2015 budget, which is expected to be announced late this month. It did not elaborate.

The budget is likely to anticipate far lower oil export revenues than Saudi Arabia received in 2014, after oil prices plunged to five-year lows in the last few months. However, Riyadh’s huge fiscal reserves, built up over past years of high oil prices, are expected to allow the government to avoid any big reduction in spending.

The new Health Minister, Mohammad al-Heaza, takes over from Labor Minister Adel al-Faqieh, who held the health portfolio since April, when he assumed the post on an acting basis at the height of a Middle East Respiratory Syndrome outbreak.

MERS is still seen as a big threat by the authorities and Heaza will lead Saudi efforts to contain the disease, which has infected 818 people in the kingdom, after Faqieh oversaw a shake-up of the Health Ministry.

Sulaiman Abu al-Khail was appointed Islamic affairs minister, taking responsibility for Saudi Arabia’s enormous religious infrastructure, including 70,000 mosques and their imams. The ministry is tasked with overseeing efforts to stop radicalization in mosques and with ensuring that sermons and preachers do not encourage militant Islamist ideology.

Abdullah al-Muqbil was named Transport Minister and will oversee Saudi Arabia’s massive investment in new railways and ports, part of a wider program of infrastructure spending aimed at diversifying the economy beyond oil.

Khalid al-Sabti was appointed Higher Education minister. King Abdullah has focused on education since taking the throne in 2005, creating new universities, scholarship programs and technical colleges.

Walid al-Khuraiji was named Agriculture Minister, Abdul-Aziz al-Khodairi was made Culture and Information Minister, Fahad al-Hamad was made Telecommunications and Information Technology Minister, and Sulaiman al-Hamid becomes Social Affairs Minister.