Saudi planning cabinet reshuffle amid threat of protests

March 3, 2011 - 0:0

RIAYDH (Agencies) — Saudi Arabia is to announce a major cabinet reshuffle soon as the four-year term for the current council of ministers has expired.

The term of the cabinet formed on March 22, 2007 expired 21 days ago based on the lunar Islamic calendar followed in the conservative kingdom, an official told AFP on Wednesday.
Saudi Arabia has feared that the instability rocking the region would eventually find its way to the kingdom’s Eastern Province, where most of the country’s oil fields are located and where its Shia -- an estimated 15 percent of the total population -- are concentrated.
""The government's mandate has expired, but due to the king's absence, the announcement of the reshuffle has been delayed,"" the official said.
King Abdullah, who is also the prime minister, returned to Riyadh on February 23, after being away for three months for medical treatment.
""We can expect significant changes of some ministers,"" said the official, who declined to comment on speculations over replacing Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal and Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi.
King Abdullah kept the line-up of ministers unchanged when he ascended the throne after the death of his brother King Fahd in 2005.
In February 2009, he appointed new education, justice and information ministers, a new supreme court chief and a new head of the consultative Shura council, along with the nomination of a deputy education minister for women's education.
Saudi Arabia has been watching with extreme concern as a wave of unrest in the Persian Gulf region has hit Bahrain, where a Sunni monarchy presides over a Shiite majority; Oman, where the ruling sultanate is facing rare and widespread civil unrest; and Yemen, where the embattled president’s political crisis is threatening to stir up unrest among the Ismaili sect in Saudi Arabia’s southwestern Jizan and Najran provinces.
A Shiite cleric was arrested in oil-rich Eastern Province on Feb. 27 after calling for a constitutional monarchy during a Friday sermon.
The arrest, likely a pre-emptive move on the Saudi government’s part as it watches unrest sweep through the Persian Gulf region, could end up sparking protests among the kingdom’s Shia minority.
The cleric would voice complaints about religious freedoms, but in that sermon he called for a constitutional monarchy. That call has been echoed in recent days by a group of Saudi intellectuals who have become part of a fledgling movement in the kingdom. This group has e-mailed petitions and supported Facebook groups calling for protests March 11 and March 20 to demand political and social reforms.
The governments of Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, which have Shia populations of roughly 10, 5 to 10 and 15 percent, respectively, have been preemptively promising political reform and increasing subsidies in an attempt to keep unrest from spreading to their countries.