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Sat 3 Dec 2016 12:47 AM

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Saudi Arabia appoints new labour minister, reshuffles Shura council

King Salman bin Abdulaziz replaces labour minister after rise in unemployment in the world's top oil exporter

Saudi Arabia appoints new labour minister, reshuffles Shura council
Saudi Labour Minister Mufrej al-Haqbani has been replaced. (FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images)

King Salman bin Abdulaziz has replaced Saudi Arabia's labour
minister, state media reported on Friday, after recent statistics showed a rise
in unemployment in the world's top oil exporter.

In a royal decree read on state television, the king also
reshuffled the country's top religious body, the Council of Senior Scholars,
and the Shura Council, which advises the government.

The changes come as the kingdom prepares to implement
reforms proposed by its Vision 2030, which aims to reduce dependence on oil,
attract foreign investments and promote more cultural openness.

State television said King Salman had appointed Ali bin
Nasser al-Ghafis as labour minister to replace Mufrej al-Haqbani.

Ghafis is currently head of the Technical and Vocational
Training Corporation, a network of colleges set up to train young Saudis in the
trades.

The program had long been regarded as ineffective but received
a new lease on life under former labour minister Adel Fakieh, who is now a
leading figure in the kingdom's initiative to transform its oil-dependent
economy.

The king also changed the head of the country's consultative
Shura Council and replaced several members of the assembly.

Some members of the council have recently come under fire on
social media for proposing or supporting cuts to some social benefits and the
raising of prices of some basic services.

Labour woes

Haqbani faced a slew of challenges in his time at the helm
of the Labour Ministry, as a sharp drop in crude prices slashed government
revenues and took a toll on economic growth.

Job creation dried up this year amid severe cuts to public
spending and delays in state payments to contractors, despite reforms geared
toward creating jobs for Saudis.

The unemployment rate rose to 12.1 percent in the third
quarter, up from 11.6 percent the previous quarter.

The kingdom's economic reform plan, led by Deputy Crown
Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has set targets to cut the jobless rate to 7
percent by 2030 and raise women's participation in the labour force to 30
percent from 22 percent.

Saudi Arabia has also been embarrassed this year by labour
unrest, as delayed payments by the state have pushed the kingdom's largest
contractors into financial duress and led them to delay salary payments.

Thousands of mostly foreign employees went unpaid for months
and were abandoned without food in squalid labour camps. As the salary delays
worsened, frustrated workers have in some cases staged rare public protests.

The appointment of more modern-thinking clerics to the
Council of Senior Scholars also appears to support the reform plan, which has
courted controversy in the conservative Sunni kingdom by calling for
entertainment and women's employment.

New members include Mohammed al-Issa, a previous minister of
justice and former member of the council often cited by liberals as the sort of
moderate Wahhabi cleric that reformers in the royal family want to promote.

Another new member, Sulaiman Aba al-Khail, was formerly head
of the religiously-oriented Imam bin Saud University and described by Saudi
Twitter users as liberal.

Aba al-Khail was quoted in an interview with al-Watan
newspaper last month as saying that some scholars have corrupted the minds of
young Saudis.

The council remains dominated by older conservatives such as
Saleh al-Fawzan and Saleh al-Luhaidan, who once called for Muslim media owners
who broadcast "depravity" to be executed.

In recent years, however, the government has promoted more
moderate clerics and opened up the council to include scholars from the other
main branches of Sunni jurisprudence beyond the Hanbali school followed by
Wahhabis.