Saudi Arabia´s new foreign minister struck a note of defiance Friday in the face of international outrage over critic Jamal Khashoggi´s murder, denying the kingdom was in crisis and that his predecessor had been demoted.
Ibrahim al-Assaf, a former veteran finance minister who was briefly detained last year in what Riyadh said was an anti-corruption sweep, replaced Adel al-Jubeir as foreign minister in a major government shake-up on Thursday ordered by King Salman.
The surprise reshuffle was seen partly as an attempt to elevate the kingdom´s marginalised old guard, adding a veneer of checks and balances to the policy decisions of 33-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who faces intense global scrutiny over the October 2 murder of journalist Khashoggi.
But speaking to AFP in his first interview since his appointment, Assaf insisted the restructuring was motivated not by the Khashoggi affair, but the need to make the government machinery more efficient.
"The issue of Jamal Khashoggi... really saddened us, all of us," Assaf told AFP at his residence in Riyadh, adorned with mahogany furniture, a wall-mounted elephant tusk and other hunting trophies.
"But all in all, we are not going through a crisis, we are going through a transformation," he added, referring to social and economic reforms spearheaded by the crown prince.
In Thursday´s reshuffle, Jubeir was appointed minister of state for foreign affairs, fuelling speculation that he had been demoted after he failed to quell global criticism over Khashoggi.
"This is far from the truth," Assaf said.
Jubeir´s new role, he insisted, was tantamount to a division of labour and not a demotion, in a bid to accelerate the task of remaking a ministry known to be overly bureaucratic.
"Adel represented Saudi Arabia and will continue to represent Saudi Arabia... around the world," Assaf said.
"We complement each other."
Jubeir was not immediately reachable for comment.