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Feeling the Oil Squeeze: Saudi King Ousts Finance Minister

Ibrahim Al-Assaf, Saudi Arabia’s Finance Minister for twenty years, has been excused from his long-held position and reappointed as state minister. The move is part of a wider government reshuffle prompted by the persistently low oil prices that have opened an uncomfortably wide gap in the kingdom’s state budget.

Al-Assaf will be replaced by Mohammed Al-Jadaan, who previously served as chief of the country’s Capital Markets Authority.

Earlier this year, the Saudi king, or rather Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who was put in charge of reforms, removed Saudi Arabia’s long-serving Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi from his position, replacing him with Khalid al-Falih. The prince also appointed HSBC’s former head of Middle East and North Africa operations Mohammad Al Tuwaijri as Deputy Economic Minister.

Last week, both Al-Tuwaijri and Al-Assaf took part in a popular talk show on Saudi TV to defend a set of austerity measures aimed at propping up the kingdom’s finances. The country last year booked a budget deficit of over 15 percent of GDP, and this year the IMF expects another deficit, albeit a bit smaller, at 13 percent of GDP.

The two ministers discussed – and defended – the steps taken to mitigate the effects of this deficit, such as canceling fuel subsidies and cutting the public administration wages by as much as 20 percent – things that did boost their popularity in the eyes of Saudi citizens, especially public servants, who complained loudly about the cuts.

Al-Tuwaijri, for his part, accused public employees of being lazy and inefficient, and stressed that this would need to change to bring an economic recovery to Saudi Arabia after being punched by lingering low oil prices that they had hoped would have already recovered.

As Bloomberg notes in a recap of the TV show, the Deputy Economy Minister also indirectly slammed Al-Assaf for unwise investments made in the past at a time when petrodollars were pouring in.

The Finance Minister defended himself over those investment decisions, but apparently not convincingly enough. His removal signals that the kingdom’s new rulers are set on doing whatever they can to reverse its failing fortunes.

By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com

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