Doctor Ghazi Al-Qosaibi: Politician, diplomat and poet who had the ear of the reforming King Abdullah in Saudi Arabia

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The death of Dr Ghazi Al-Qosaibi, the straight-talking Saudi technocrat, diplomat and poet, leaves a large hole at the top of the power structure in King Abdullah's Saudi Arabia. Ostensibly Ghazi (pronounced "Rhazzi") was Minister of Labour, charged with the hopeless task of reducing the foreign labour force and getting male Saudis to do a decent day's work. In reality he was the King's principal non-family confidant and adviser, the closest thing he had to a prime minister.

A sprawling, funny, oversized man of gargantuan appetites and ideas, Al-Qosaibi pursued an academic career in Cairo, California and London to become Dean of the Faculty of Commerce at King Saud University in Riyadh in the early 1970s. Outspoken and in a hurry, he caught the eye of the future King Fahd, who promoted him through a succession of positions to the Ministry of Industry and Electricity in 1975 and the Ministry of Health in 1982.

But in 1984 Al-Qosaibi's outspokenness proved his undoing, when he composed A Pen Bought and Sold, a poem that bemoaned the Saudi culture of wasta [influence] and corruption against which he battled as a minister, and the lack of high-level support he felt he was receiving – from his mentor Fahd, in particular

I see you among the crowds; yet I do not

see

That wonted smile flourishing on your

countenance.

Your eyes pass me over, hurrying, as if

They were passing a stranger, fleeing in

terror.

The minister's poem was published in Al-Hayat, the Beirut-based, pan-Arab newspaper, and everyone who mattered in the Arab world got the message. Fahd's close family was a byword for their profiteering, and the king's "sentence" on his outspoken minister could almost be seen as an admission of his own guilt. Although removed from his ministry, Al-Qosaibi was posted to not-so-painful exile as Saudi ambassador to the island of Bahrain off the Saudi eastern province of Al-Hasa – where he had been born in 1940 and where his family, a successful merchant clan, had long served as agents for the house of Saud.

Eight years later he was moved to London, to the be-pillared white Saudi embassy in Curzon Street, Mayfair, where he reveled in his role of trying to explain the Kingdom to an unsympathetic British public. Like many an ambassador, he wrote his fair share of letters to The Times, but perceiving where British political opinion was most fundamentally formed, he dispatched his truly impassioned epistles to the letters page of Private Eye.

Another impassioned epistle marked the end of his time there. Engaged like all Arabs in the drama of the 2000 Palestinian intifada, and especially moved by the fate of Ayat Akhras, the Palestinian teenager who blew herself up in a Jerusalem supermarket, killing two Israelis, in April 2002, Al-Qosaibi wrote a poem in her honour:

You died to glorify the Word of my Lord

In quarters sanctified by the Prophet's

ascension.

It was less than eight months after 9/11. The Jewish Board of Deputies wrote in protest, the Foreign Office expressed its displeasure. Closer reading of the poem made clear that Al-Qosaibi's anger was directed most fiercely at his fellow Arabs whose inactivity had driven this young "bride of the heavens" to "kiss death with a smile":



Did you commit suicide? No. We've

committed suicide,

Preferring a life of the living-dead...

We've turned impotent,

So much that impotence grumbles against

us.

By 2002 Crown Prince Abdullah was running Saudi Arabia for the ailing King Fahd, and newspapers reported that the furore over the poem prompted the Crown Prince to summon his ambassador home. In fact, Abdullah had already earmarked the anti-corruption crusader as a key figure in the reform cabinet he was assembling in the aftermath of 9/11, appointing Al-Qosaibi Minister of Water and Electricity (2002-04), then handing him the poisoned chalice of Labour, where he served from 2004 until his death.

Al-Qosaibi brought his customary energy to both jobs, being photographed wearing an apron in a fast food kitchen, where he spent several hours flipping hamburgers in a forlorn attempt to persuade young Saudis that such work was not beneath them. "There's no greater honour than starting at the bottom and finishing at the top," he declared in a robust dig at the drones of the vast and privileged Saudi royal family. "It is not an accomplishment when one finds oneself already at the top."

But his most important work was behind the scenes, operating as King Abdullah's personal one-man think tank and as an energy source for change. The two men shared a disdain for the backward-looking religious establishment which Al-Qosaibi was able to express openly – earning bans, as a consequence, on virtually all his polemical and secular literary works. He had a particular empathy with the reforming monarch. "Of all of us," remarked another of the king's inner circle, "it is Dr Ghazi who best understands the music coming from upstairs".

Al-Qosaibi cheerfully acknowledged that his attempts to limit the Kingdom's dependence on foreign workers had made him the bête noire of the Saudi business community.

"They complain that I will not issue enough visas," he remarked. "Well, they should see how many the king wants to give" – and he held up his thumb and forefinger to make the shape of a zero.

It is difficult to see anyone to whom the reforming Saudi monarch can now turn for such robust support in his battle with his country's inertia and conservatism, and Al-Qosaibi's death (of complications following colon cancer) poses a still bigger challenge to the Kingdom as a whole. Is there anyone big enough and brave enough to take Dr Ghazi's place?

Robert Lacey

Ghazi Al-Qosaibi, politician, diplomat and poet: born Al Hasa, Saudi Arabia 3 March 1940; Minister, Saudi Arabia: Industry and Electricity 1975–82, Health 1982–84; Ambassador to Bahrain 1984–92, to UK and Ireland 1992–2002; Minister for Water, SA 2002–04, Labour 2004-; married 1968 Sigrid Presser (three sons, one daughter); died Riyadh 15 August 2010.

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