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The Wall Street Journal reported the prince had acted as a proxy for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman when he purchased the "Salvator Mundi" painting.

"Saudi Arabia has been clearly attaching political strings to any possible deal with buying Russians weapons. that Russia should scale down its cooperation with Iran primarily and maybe modify its position in Syria", he added.

The Saudi king also dismissed Ali bin Nasser al-Ghafis as the head of the Ministry of Labor and Social Development and replaced him with Ahmed bin Suleiman al-Rajhi.

Historic reforms have been passed in Saudi Arabia, which will see women allowed to drive from June 24. Their influence, however, has remained.

Princess Hayfa says: "'In our country, some conservatives fear change, and I support it with enthusiasm.' She is another example of a modern Saudi woman who challenges the restrictions".

Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy, will welcome millions of Muslim faithful on their annual pilgrimage to Mecca, Islam's holiest city, come August.

Getting hundreds of thousands of unemployed Saudis into the workforce is a major challenge for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who oversees economic policy for the world's top oil exporter, where unemployment stands at 12.8 per cent. No further details were made available. For many, it's all they have known.

They have been identified by rights groups as mostly veteran women campaigners for the right to drive - and to end Saudi's male guardianship system, under which women must still secure the approval of their fathers, brothers or husbands to travel or study.

Steffen Hertog of the London School of Economics said the move might also be aimed at rebuilding trust with the business community, which has been frustrated by the rapid pace of some economic reforms and unnerved by an anti-corruption purge past year.

The European Parliament last week approved a resolution calling for the unconditional release of the detained activists and other human rights defenders, while urging a more vocal response from EU nations.