Saudi Cabinet shakeup targets key ministries

AP News
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Posted: Dec 08, 2014 10:51 AM

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — Saudi King Abdullah announced on Monday a Cabinet shakeup, naming new ministers to key portfolios overseeing the kingdom's universities and mosques where ultraconservative clerics and their supporters hold sway.

The Saudi Press Agency carried the king's decrees, which included new heads for the ministries of higher education, Islamic affairs, health, culture and information, telecommunications, transportation, agriculture and social affairs.

Longtime Islamic Affairs Minister Saleh al-Sheikh, who was in the post since 1999, was replaced by Suleiman Aba al-Khail, former president of one of Saudi Arabia's largest public universities, the Imam Muhammad ibn Saud Islamic University in the capital Riyadh.

The new minister, Aba al-Khail, is from the traditionally conservative region of Qassim.

He enters the post, overseeing the kingdom's thousands of mosques and imams, at a time when the Saudi king is pushing clerics to speak out against extremist groups. Saudi Arabia follows a strict strain of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism.

After years of supporting and, at other times, turning a blind eye to jihadists taking up arms in foreign conflicts, Saudi Arabia moved to criminalize fighting abroad this year. Clerics who do not condemn terrorism in Friday sermons could face penalties, and some have had their license to preach revoked.

Saudi Arabia is part of the U.S.-led coalition conducting airstrikes against Islamic State group fighters in Iraq and Syria.

The change at the ministry also marks the first time in decades that a member from the influential ultraconservative al-Sheikh family is not a minister. Members of the family once held three ministerial portfolios. Currently, the country's grand mufti and the head of the consultative Shura Council hail from the al-Sheikh family.

Additionally, a new higher education minister replaced Khalid al-Angary, who served since 1991. The new minister Khalid al-Sebty was formerly deputy education minister.

The king also named Mohammed al-Hizay as health minister. An uptick in the number of deaths related to the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome prompted the sacking of the previous minister. Nearly 350 people have died from the virus in Saudi Arabia since 2012.

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Batrawy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.