First Arab Muslim astronaut to lead Saudi space agency amid leadership reshuffle

Saudi King Salman has demoted Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir in a major reshuffle, which included changes to key national security posts amid fallout from the murder of a dissident journalist.

Assaf, who was detained briefly in the anti-corruption crackdown launched by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman past year, replaced Adel al-Jubeir who was shifted to a more advisory role as Minister of State for Foreign Affairs.

The reshuffle came with the Saudi government trying to deal with intense global pressure over the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October.

Russian Federation warned the US against any effort to influence the royal succession in Saudi Arabia, offering its support to embattled Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who's under continuing pressure over the killing of a government critic.

Other notable changes include the appointment of Prince Abdullah bin Bandar bin Abdulaziz as chief of the National Guard, replacing Prince Miteb bin Abdullah.

Turki al-Sheikh, a close aide to the crown prince, was removed as the head of the kingdom's sports commission and named entertainment authority chief.

The decree also said that the country is establishing a national space agency to be headed up by Sultan bin Salman. Prince Sultan had been head of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTH).

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Turki Shabbaneh has been appointed as Minister of Media, while Hamad Al Sheikh was appointed Minister of Education.

A former finance minister, Assaf was among dozens of royal family members, government officials, and top businessmen detained during an "anti-corruption purge" in November 2017. "There is an effort to balance the fast pace of reform with bolstering government procedures and institutions".

Last week the kingdom announced the creation of three government bodies aimed at improving its intelligence operations.

After the reshuffle, Prince Mohammed is set to maintain his political and security posts, including that of defense minster.

The murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul has shone a spotlight on the ultra-conservative Islamic nation.

"The primary bone of contention between Saudi Arabia and American lawmakers is the power of Prince Mohammed and his responsibility for the murder of Khashoggi", said Ryan Bohl, from the United States geopolitical think tank Stratfor.

But the critic's killing has tainted the image of the 33-year-old prince - the de facto ruler and heir apparent - even though the kingdom strongly denies he was involved.

  • Sonia Alvarado