Prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi resigned 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. 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, was unexpected, and Saudi journalists said they believed it was because of high-level government pressure. 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.


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 restrictions, 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.


In a separate development, liberal Saudi writer Mihklaf bin Daham Al-Shimeri said police questioned him for allegedly criticizing senior clerics. Shimeri, who publishes columns in various Saudi dailies and websites, said in a statement that police in the eastern town of Al-Khobar later released him on bail after charging him with "inciting the public". Al-Shimeri is known for his sharp criticism of the conservative Saudi religious establishment.


May 16, 2010



Analysis and Forecast: Increasing Risk


The stepping down of Khashoggi represents a serious set-back to reforms in Saudi Arabia. Concern in the past several months has grown indicating that the Saudi government is cracking down on what it view as the reformist elements in the kingdom.  It appears that the crack-down has culminated to a degree that a leading reformist writer like Khashoggi had to set-down.


The event indicates that the reforms that have slowly trickled down since King Abdullah ascended the throne, are being threatened by the growing position of the traditionalist elements with Saudi society.


The questioning of Shimeri confirms that the traditionalist elements have rallied around and are now intent at thwarting reform attempts.