Last Sunday Ghazi Algosaibi, Saudi Arabian Minister of Labour and well-known author, died in Riyadh. Only two weeks ago his literary works were taken off the index in his home country. Algosaibi's life and works are proof of the fine line politicians and liberal thinkers are walking in Saudi Arabia. By Hanna Labonté
The sight of Saudi Minister of Labour Ghazi Algosaibi serving hamburgers at a snack bar in Jeddah in 2008 for a full three hours was a major sensation in the Saudi media. The debate about the "Saudisation Programme", launched by the minister a couple of years before, was at its height. The ministry had introduced a mandatory quota for Saudi employees, in order to decrease the rising unemployment rate among Saudi youth.
Algosaibi was caught between the striking number of jobless Saudis and the urging of the rapidly growing economy, unable to find young locals willing to work in the lower service sector and hence pressing the minister to allow more Asian workers into the county to meet workforce needs.
The minister's publicity coup was aimed at the arrogant attitude held by many of his fellow countrymen, who considered these jobs undignified und dishonourable: "We don't have blue blood running in our veins. Everyone works for his livelihood. Even the holy prophets worked as carpenters, farmers and shepherds!" Algosaibi said on this occasion.
A witness to social change
Ghazi Algosaibi was born in 1940 into a long-established family of tradesmen in the town of Hofuf in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province. The renowned Saudi author Abdulrahman al-Munif described quite vividly the changes this oil-rich area experienced during these early years of the oil boom in his five-part work Cities of Salt (partly available in translation).
Algosaibi was educated in Bahrain, at that time under British protectorate, and commenced his law studies in Cairo, later studying in California and London, where he earned his doctorate. His experiences in quasi-colonised Bahrain and especially his years in the political and social hotbed of early 1960s Cairo affected him strongly.
Like many literary figures of his generation, he was deeply shocked and influenced by the Arab defeat of 1967, which had a lifelong impact on both his writing and his political beliefs. Yet his intercultural encounters also left him with a strong enthusiasm for observing and understanding other cultures.
Caught between literature and politics
On concluding his education, Algosaibi quickly advanced into Saudi Arabia's political circles, appointed Minister of Health under King Khalid in 1975. In his 35-year political career he was to hold many political posts – and would be discharged at least twice due to his often highly critical literary works – only to later gain other major posts.
In 1984 Algosaibi was dismissed as a minister after publishing a poem criticising the corruption and privileges of the Saudi elite under King Fahd. He subsequently quickly left Riyadh to become the Saudi ambassador to Bahrain.
In 2002, Algosaibi was ambassador in London, from where he was summoned home after a poem about the Palestinian suicide bomber Ayat Akhras became known to the public. In the poem, Algosaibi glorified the young woman who had killed herself and two Israelis at a market place. The poem also addressed the political and intellectual elite of the Arab world, who Algosaibi accused of turning their backs on any responsibility with regard to the Palestinian question.
A society built upon consensus
Upon his return to Riyadh, Algosaibi became Minister of Labour, a post he was to hold until his death. While the most pressing issue during his administration remained the exploding youth unemployment, Algosaibi also tried to tackle the low employment rate among women. His comparatively liberal political and religious ideas often scandalised the Saudi public, his popularity decreasing during these years.
Reforms, said Algosaibi in the course of the first (and to this day also last) Saudi municipal elections in 2005, are a slow business in Saudi Arabia. "You have to wait for a viable consensus to reform before you go ahead."
The thin line Algosaibi was balancing as politician and author becomes painfully clear when considering that the same government Algosaibi was part of for many years banned his works – an irony that only demonstrates the need for very careful equilibration on side of the Saudi political elite.
Romance and nationalism
Algosaibi published approximately 60 novels, poetry collections and philosophical-political works. His more important works include the novels Shuqqa al-Hurriya (An Apartment Called Freedom, Kegan Paul) and Saba'a (Seven, Saqi Books).
Love, taboos and the condition of the Arab states were the prevailing issues in his literature. The relationship between "the West" and the Arab cultures played a key role. Algosaibi criticised the blind acceptance of concepts and consumer goods that originated in other cultures. In Saba'a, he openly denunciates the Western-educated Arab elites who feel superior to the simple man rather than using their training to improve the situation in their home countries.
Only the week before last, the new Saudi Minister of Information, Abdulaziz Khoja, published a declaration on his Facebook page – a paradox indeed – that finally made Algosaibi's works available in the kingdom. Meanwhile Khoja's own works (the Minister of information is himself a poet) remain banned. Literally overnight, Algosaibi's works filled the shelves of the big Saudi booksellers.
Ghazi Algosaibi died of a prolonged illness in Riyadh last week. The 70-year-old was regarded as one of the most enigmatic Saudi figures, an important Arab author and fairly liberal thinker. He had successfully managed to walk the difficult tightrope between reform and traditions in Saudi Arabia for nearly 35 years.
© Qantara.de 2010
Editor: Lewis Grop/Qantara.de