Saudi King Salman appointed Saudi Aramco’s chief executive as chairman of the state oil firm and health minister on Wednesday, in a reshuffle that is unlikely to change oil policy in the world’s top crude exporter.
A question mark remains, however, over who will replace Khalid al-Falih in the key CEO role at the national oil giant and whether his appointment as health minister means he is now out of the running to ultimately become oil minister.
“I don’t think there’s been any disagreement about the idea of keeping up production, maintaining market share, refusing to be a swing producer,” Clement M. Henry, professor at Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore said.
“There will be no change in (Saudi) oil policy at all. The policy is not subject to change at every cabinet reshuffle,” said Mohammad Al Sabban, a former senior adviser to Saudi oil Minister Ali al-Naimi.
Oil prices dipped on Wednesday as oversupply outweighed any political uncertainty in Saudi Arabia.
Falih’s appointment as health minister was announced in a series of royal decrees, which made no mention of his position at Saudi Aramco. But an Aramco statement on Wednesday described him as “chairman of the Saudi Aramco board of directors and outgoing president and CEO”, confirming an earlier report by Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya television.
The move was part of a major reshuffle in the kingdom that also saw King Salman appoint Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef as his new heir, replacing the monarch’s half brother Prince Muqrin.
The post of Aramco chairman had been held by Naimi, himself a former chief executive of the company, who remains in the ministerial position he has occupied for 20 years.
Falih, who became Aramco CEO in 2009 after a 30-year career in the company, has long been considered a possible successor to Naimi as oil minister.
Traders said they were watching closely to see who becomes Aramco CEO and whether the position of Naimi, who is on a visit to China, would be affected.
Naimi, who is 79 years old and has been oil minister since 1995, has seen several oil price crashes in his tenure.
He was the driving force behind OPEC’s decision last November not to cut production to support prices, which have halved since June 2014, but rather fight for market share.
Saudi oil policy “has proved to be successful and based on a very sound principle. All major producers from OPEC and non-OPEC should bear their respective fair share,” said Sabban.
The appointment of Falih as Aramco’s chairman means he still has a firm foothold in the oil sector. But naming him as health minister could mean his chances of taking the top oil job after Naimi are lower, since he is holding a different ministerial portfolio.
The position of health minister is important in Saudi Arabia as it has been imposing stricter preventive measures against the spread of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), which emerged in 2012 in the kingdom and has killed hundreds.
Earlier this year, King Salman promoted his son Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, long a member of Saudi Arabia’s OPEC delegation, to the role of deputy oil minister from assistant oil minister, a post he had held for many years.
Since Abdulaziz’s promotion, some diplomatic and Saudi sources have suggested the prince’s experience in the sector might overcome what has always been seen as the impossibility of appointing a royal to the post of oil minister.
“This is probably not the last reshuffle and we need to keep in mind that the King’s son, Prince Abdulaziz, as deputy oil minister is still waiting in the wings for a more rewarding position,” said Olivier Jakob from Petromatrix consultancy.
Falih, a mechanical engineer, has created new business units at Saudi Aramco and planned to widen the company’s focus from crude production to emphasise its role in producing gas, chemicals and refined products, as well as renewable energy.
Falih has been regarded as one of a handful of Saudi figures whose views are closely watched by traders and analysts for any insight on the kingdom’s oil thinking.
Wednesday’s statement from Saudi Aramco, which followed a board meeting last week, said the company had also appointed six new vice-presidents.