New Saudi king in major government shake-up

Riyadh (AFP) - Saudi Arabia's new King Salman has tightened his hold on power, firing two sons of his predecessor and replacing the heads of intelligence and other key agencies in a sweeping shakeup.

The appointments, which analysts said supported signs the kingdom will chart a steady course on foreign and oil policy, came a week after Salman, 79, took the throne following the death of King Abdullah.

Top officials from the Ports Authority, the National Anti-Corruption Commission and the conservative Islamic kingdom's religious police were among those let go late Thursday.

But the oil and foreign ministers retained their key posts.

The changes confirmed speculation that Abdullah's death "would see a reversal in his immediate family's fortunes," said Jon Marks, a Middle East expert at London-based think-tank Chatham House.

"We have a situation of change in a highly personalised hierarchy, but not -- at least not immediately -- of significant policy change."

Salman also reached out directly to his subjects. One of his more than 30 decrees ordered "two months' basic salary to all Saudi government civil and military employees," the Saudi Press Agency (SPA) said.

Students and pensioners got similar bonuses.

"Dear people: You deserve more and whatever I do will not be able to give you what you deserve," the king said later on his official Twitter account.

He asked his citizens to "not forget me in your prayers".

- Super-ministry -

General Khalid bin Ali bin Abdullah al-Humaidan became the new intelligence chief, holding cabinet rank, and replacing Prince Khalid bin Bandar bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud.

A separate decree said Prince Bandar bin Sultan, a nephew of Abdullah, was removed from his posts as Secretary General of the National Security Council and adviser to the king. The council was dissolved.

Two sons of the late monarch were also fired: Prince Mishaal, governor of the Mecca region, and Prince Turki, who governed the capital Riyadh, according to the decrees broadcast on Saudi television.

Salman, a half-brother of Abdullah, named a 31-member cabinet whose new faces include the ministers for culture and information, social affairs, civil service, and communications and information technology, among others.

Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi, Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, and Finance Minister Ibrahim al-Assaf stayed in the cabinet of the world's leading oil exporter.

A nearly 60 percent fall in global oil prices since last June has left Saudi Arabia projecting its first budget deficit since 2011, but government spending is set to continue.

Salman merged the ministries of higher education and education, naming Azzam bin Mohammed al-Dakheel to head the super-ministry.

With most of the changes in the fields of education and culture, the appointments indicate that the kingdom's foreign and oil policies "will remain unchanged," said Anwar Eshqi, head of the Jeddah-based Middle East Centre for Strategic Studies.

Along with other countries in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia has joined a US-led air campaign against the Islamic State group that has seized parts of Syria and neighbouring Iraq.

Saudi Arabia is trying to improve its basic education system and has built more universities as it seeks to diversify its oil-dependent economy.

The former head of the ultra-conservative kingdom's notorious religious police, Shaikh Abdul Latif Al Shaikh, was replaced by Abdulrahman al-Sanad.

"The reshuffle of senior religious officials seems to be a reflection of Salman's austere, conservative world view. This will not go down well with domestic and Western critics," said Marks.

Shaikh last year admitted the presence of extremists within the ranks of the religious body, known as the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.

Another decree replaced the chief of the country's stock market regulator, ahead of a mid-year target for opening the Arab world's largest bourse to foreign investors.

Hours after Abdullah died on January 23 aged about 90, Salman appointed his son, Prince Mohammed, as defence minister.

Powerful Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef became second in line to the throne, while Deputy Crown Prince Moqren, 69, was elevated to king-in-waiting.

Moqren would reign as the last son of the kingdom's founder, Abdul Aziz bin Saud, leaving bin Nayef as the first of the "second generation," or grandsons of Abdul Aziz.

The appointment of Prince Mohammed bin Nayef helps to solidify control by the new king's Sudayri branch of the royal family. Their influence had waned under Abdullah.