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Will a cabinet reshuffle fix Saudi Arabia’s economic malaise? | News

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When he emerged on the political scene in 2015, 33-year-old Mohammed bin Salman, known by his initials MBS, was given a rock star’s welcome by US politicians and Silicon Valley executives.

Saudi Arabia‘s young crown prince had a vision for the kingdom: He planned to diversify the economy, improve public services, such as healthcare and education, and drastically reduce dependence on oil.

But nearly two years on, the world’s youngest defence minister and de-facto ruler of one of its last absolute monarchies, has failed to keep pace with most of his proposed reforms.

On Thursday, his ageing father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, 83, reasserted his power as the kingdom struggles with its worst diplomatic crisis since the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, who has repeatedly defended the monarchy following the brutal murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, was demoted to the position of minister of state for foreign affairs.

In return, 69-year-old Ibrahim al-Assaf, who was arrested last year during MBS’ so-called “anti-corruption” drive, was brought in as his replacement.

The other notable cabinet changes saw Prince Miteb bin Abdullah fired as the chief of the National Guard, while Khalid bin Qirar al-Harbi was named general security chief and Musaed al-Aiban was appointed national security adviser. 

Jubeir didn’t do too well when talking about the Khashoggi murder, but then again, nobody in Saudi Arabia did. But this is more of an attempt to show the world that changes are being made, despite there not being any real change in policy.

Rami Khouri, non-resident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School

Marwan Bishara, Al Jazeera’s senior political analyst, said Assaf’s appointment was a “signal” from Riyadh to the international community that it was “open for business – literally”.

“The Saudis are trying to send a message that they want to change, they want to regain confidence and credibility in the international community, especially among the international business community.

“And since Assaf was something of a star at the Davos summits and the World Economic summits in previous years, Riyadh reckons he’s the man for the new challenge – which is to bring back business and much-needed investment.”

‘MBS needs foreign investment’

The outcry over Khashoggi’s brutal murder in October saw dozens of prominent CEOs and international media pull out of MBS’ “Davos in the desert” summit, the crown prince’s attempt to suck foreign investment into the Saudi economy.

The murder, as well as the Saudi government’s shifting narratives, fractured Riyadh’s relations with its Western allies, and according to Forbes, foreign investment in the local stock market – Tadawul – has been falling steadily.

International shareholders controlled 5.1 percent of all listed shares on September 27, Forbes said, but the list of shares fell to 4.7 percent by early November.

The fall was not a surprise. The UN reported earlier this year that foreign direct investment had fallen by 23 percent in 2017 to $1.4bn, its lowest level in 14 years.

“Western businesses have looked askance at what’s been going on in Saudi Arabia,” said Bill Law, a Middle East analyst.

“It’s not just the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, but it’s also the many other blunders that MBS has conducted
– the first and most obvious being the terrible war in Yemen.”

MBS has faced widespread criticism in recent months for the horrific humanitarian disaster unfolding in Yemen where more than 20 million people need some form of humanitarian assistance.

The kingdom has been heading a US-backed military coalition fighting against Houthi rebels since March 2015, and has launched more than 18,000 air raids on the impoverished country.

Schools and hospitals have not been spared from the bombardment, and according to Save the Children, an estimated 85,000 children under the age of five have starved to death as a result of the war.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have also maintained a blockade on food and much-needed medicine in the Houthi-controlled regions of Yemen, resulting in a cholera outbreak.

“If we recall what happened in November 2017, he [MBS] also rounded up 200 senior members of the ruling family and business people, these were all individuals with very good connections with western business, the very people he needs to get western investment coming in,” Law said. 

Many of them, including Prince Turki bin Abdullah, Prince Abdul Aziz bin Fahd and prominent businessman such as Mohammed al-Amoudi, are still missing and thought to be held in secret locations without access to legal advice. 

“With the price of oil sitting at around $50 a barrel, the Saudis urgently need to get it over $70 a barrel. Until then, he [MBS] needs foreign investment to kick-start the Saudi economy so it can live up to Vision 2030.”

Vision 2030, the flagship programme of MBS, contains a list of ambitious aims including plans to start manufacturing 50 percent of all of its military equipment and for non-oil state revenues to increase five-fold. 

Law added that Assaf’s appointment was intended as a statement to western businesses. “It’s like a ‘hey, look we might have made a mistake here, but we need your investment, the past is the past, let’s move forward’,” he said.

US Congress holds MBS’ fate

Besides Vision 2030, MBS has also announced several ambitious projects including Neom, a futuristic mega-city of self-driving cars and passenger drones.

Several foreign advisory board members, including British billionaire Richard Branson, have distanced themselves from the project following Khashoggi’s death.

Rami Khouri, a non-resident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, said Assaf’s appointment was King Salman’s attempt at both consolidating his son’s authority and “steadying the Saudi ship”.

“Jubeir didn’t do too well when talking about the Khashoggi murder, but then again, nobody in Saudi Arabia did. They were all saying things which turned out to be untrue.

“So, it’s not as if Jubeir didn’t carry the load, he did. He was a loyal servant and has been for the last 30 years or so.

“But this is more of an attempt to show the world that changes are being made, despite there not being any real change in policy.

“The latest changes in the cabinet have brought in a lot of younger princes who are close to MBS, so that’s strengthened his grip on power to some extent, but it’s also brought in some experienced managers -Ibrahim Assaf and others.

“This will help steady the ship in terms of the management of the affairs of state.” 

Several US senators, from both sides of the political divide, have expressed their anger over Khashoggi’s murder.

Riyadh has been a key ally of the US for decades and has grown closer with Washington under the Trump administration.

Trump has pointed to a “$450bn” arms deal with Saudi Arabia and the kingdom’s position as a bulwark to Iranian expansion in the region as reasons to continue close relations.

“The US Congress is probably, right now, the single most important player [in determining MBS’ fate],” Khouri said.

“Ahead of the new Congress in January, they have taken several decisions which are critical of MBS and the Saudi leadership, [including decisions on] the Khashoggi murder, the war in Yemen and other issues – and it seems they’re not going to let go.

“MBS is damaged goods but he is not out of the picture. He is still a very strong player. His father just reaffirmed support for him and he’s brought in people who close to him, so they’re going to try and ride this one out.

“So his [MBS’] future is going to depend on a lot on what foreign capitals do in the next two months or so.”

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Ottawa families give mixed reviews for online schooling

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So, how’s it going with online school? Families reached by CBC Ottawa seem to have mixed reviews. 

Masuma Khan is a mother of two. Her seven-year-old, Hana Wyndham in Grade 2, is attending French immersion virtual school. Masuma is grateful it’s an option, but can’t help notice a lot of down time.

“There’s a lot of, ‘are you on mute?’ In terms of the amount of learning that’s actually happening, it does seem to be not that high,” said Masuma.

Parents who kept their children at home this fall are in the minority, but they still form a significant chunk of families in Ottawa.

In the city’s largest school board, the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB), about 27 per cent of elementary students and 22 per cent of high school students chose online learning. The Ottawa Catholic School Board says roughly a quarter of its students are online.

For Masuma, the decision to keep her daughter home was complex: extended family members are immunocompromised and she worried the in-person learning environment would be unpleasant because of precautions. She also felt her daughter might benefit from being supported at home.

“She doesn’t necessarily enjoy school. I also found out during the pandemic that she was being bullied [last year],” said Masuma. “So I thought, why not try from home?”

To help her daughter socialize face-to-face with other kids, Masuma enrolled Hana in Baxter Forest School, an alternative education program where kids spend most of their time outside, one day a week. Hana also attends virtual Arabic classes two days a week after school. 

Masuma’s husband and Hana share the living room work space, and Masuma admits he does the lion’s share of helping their daughter stay on task. There is a possibility that he’ll be required to return to his office in the new year.

“When he goes back to work … it’s probably going to be a little bit more difficult.”

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No school closures after Christmas holiday break, says Ontario education minister

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Ontario elementary and secondary schools will not close for an extended winter break, says Education Minister Stephen Lecce.

Closures aren’t needed given Ontario’s “strong safety protocols, low levels of (COVID-19) transmission and safety within our schools,” Lecce announced Wednesday afternoon. He said he had consulted with Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams and the province’s public health measures advisory table.

That ended speculation about school buildings remaining closed in January for a period of time after the Christmas break.

Earlier in the week, Lecce told reporters the government was considering having students spend “some period out of class” in January, perhaps switching to online learning.

In a statement, Lecce said that even though rates of community transmission of COVID-19 are increasing, “schools have been remarkably successful at minimizing outbreaks to ensure that our kids stay safe and learning in their classrooms.”

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Windy start to the week in Ottawa

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OTTAWA — It’s a blustery Monday in the capital with wind gusts of up to 50 km/hour expected throughout the day.

Environment Canada is forecasting a high of 4 C with a 60 per cent chance of showers or flurries before the wind dies down later this evening.

There’s a chance of flurries on Tuesday as well with a high of -1 C. The overnight low will dip to an unseasonal -9 C.  

Wednesday’s high will be just -5 C with lots of sunshine.

Seasonal temperatures return for the rest of the week..

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