Saudi newspaper head resigns after run-in with conservatives

RIYADH, Paul Handley- Prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi resigned on Sunday from the helm of Al-Watan daily in a move believed linked to official displeasure with articles critical of the state's harsh Islamic rules.
Al-Watan announced that Khashoggi, 52, was stepping down as editor-in-chief "to focus on his personal projects," in a statement published on its website and in its Sunday edition.

Jamal Khashoggi
Jamal Khashoggi
The statement from Prince Bandar bin Khaled al-Faisal, chief executive of the company that owns Al-Watan, praised Khashoggi as "a loyal son... who left a clear mark on its progress."
The resignation, which came hours after Khashoggi celebrated his third marriage on Saturday, was unexpected, and Saudi journalists said they believed it was because of high-level government pressure.
Reached by telephone, Khashoggi said he "chose to resign for the better of Al-Watan."
It came three days after Al-Watan published a controversial column by poet Ibrahim al-Almaee criticising Salafism, which advocates returning to the fundamentals of Islam.
The article disputed Salafists' rejection of popular religious traditions such as patronising shrines and graves of important Islamic figures.
Khashoggi was abroad when the article appeared, and he said he disagreed with the decision to run the article.
"Al Watan should not have published this article," he said. "It was a human error. He (the editor) did not realise what the article meant."
The newspaper's staff expressed shock at his resignation.
"It was a sudden shock even for Jamal himself," Mahmud Sabbagh, an Al-Watan columnist, told AFP. "There was a lot of pressure lately aimed at deterring the progressive stance of Al-Watan’s opinion section."
The resignation also followed a year of tensions with authorities and religious conservatives over articles and columns viewed as critical of the ultra-conservative Wahhabi Islam which dominates Saudi life.
Last June, Khashoggi narrowly avoided being forced out after one of his columnists clashed with Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz over critical coverage of the religious police.
The column on Salafism was probably the "last straw," Sabbagh said.
US-educated Khashoggi was respected internationally for building Al-Watan into a voice for Saudi progressives.
He was a popular contact for foreign diplomats and intellectuals, and was one of a handful of senior Arab journalists invited to meet US President Barack Obama on his first trip to the Middle East in June 2009.
It was the second time Khashoggi resigned from Al-Watan. He was forced out in 2003 over an editorial criticising 14th-century Muslim theologian Ibn Taymiyya, whose thinking influenced Wahhabism.
Khashoggi returned to the paper in 2007 after serving as adviser to Prince Turki al-Faisal -- whose family controls Al-Watan -- when he was ambassador to the United States.
Under Khashoggi, Al-Watan writers have aggressively poked at the contradictions and oppressive effects of Saudi Islam, especially with regard to women.
Religious conservatives, under pressure to bow to social change, have focused on Al-Watan as a key enemy, said one of the paper's reporters.
The independent news website reported that Al-Watan had brought in a new opinion page manager to tone down coverage and reduce the pressure.
The result, according to Sabbagh, was that many writers, including himself, had found their columns being blocked from publication.
Khashoggi said that Al-Watan must push a progressive agenda, arguing that fighting for more women's rights "is not an issue of religion."
"But at the same time it must be for the purity of Islam."
"We know we are in the middle of a debate" on the development of Saudi society, he said.
"I don't see any contradiction in being a progressive Saudi and not supporting this article."
Khashoggi considers himself a Salafist Muslim, but he became concerned over how Islam was used to justify the Al-Qaeda attacks on the United States and elsewhere, Al-Watan reporter Wael Mahdi told AFP.
He had followed Osama bin Laden's career since the 1980s and had interviewed the Al-Qaeda chief several times.
"Jamal's major issue was terrorism and not social change. He wanted a new Salafism that doesn't have in it seeds for terrorism," Mahdi said.
Khashoggi knew bin Laden during his formative years as a radical Islamist and interviewed him in Afghanistan in 1987 during the fight against Russian occupation.

Monday, May 17th 2010
Paul Handley

New comment:

News | Politics | Features | Arts | Entertainment | Society | Sport

At a glance