The great statesman Ghazi al-Gosaibi has passed away, and Saudi Arabia has lost one of its most prominent politicians and intellectuals. He spent over 45 years in the Saudi Arabian public eye, dominating both the cultural scene and the media. Yet most important of all, he was an honest public servant whom moved from one public job to another without fatigue or boredom. He gave intelligent and thought-provoking speeches, whilst writing poems and novels, which critics debated with enthusiasm. Ghazi was able to understand the Saudi mentality, and probe its hidden concerns, and he was able to bring these to attention until his last moments. On his deathbed, he authored a book about his memories with foreign politicians, and afterwards his publisher issued another book on the eve of his death.
Ghazi was a special Saudi case; for he was Saudi Arabia’s controversial son. The Saudi people loved him for a long time, then opposed and vilified him during the period of Islamic awakening in Saudi Arabia in the early 1990s, and subsequently they fell in love with him again. He defended Saudi Arabia at the darkest of times, both internally and externally, but he did not give in to his opponents, or critics.
What made al-Gosaibi so exceptional?
In my opinion, Ghazi al-Gosaibi was a unique figure, he was multi-talented and he knew this himself. He wanted to be a poet, combining the genius of Mutanabi and the modernity of Nizzar Qabani, and he achieved what he wanted. He wrote literature, and became a role model for novelists and young writers. However, what most distinguished Ghazi was his personal charisma, which guaranteed him four decades of presence and popularity. Truth be told, you can agree or disagree with Ghazi, but you cannot help but acknowledge that he was a patriot, loyal to the State, and passionate about his country.
In his book “Political Order in Changing Societies” (1968), Samuel Huntington talks about a generation of technocrats and nationalists who were educated in the West then returned to their traditional political societies. Those technocrats held the link between their traditional societies and the modern world. If I reflect on the biography of Ghazi al-Gosaibi, graduate of the University College of London and the University of Southern California, he was the perfect example of the enlightened technocrat that seeks to modernize the country without disruption or imposing change. Anybody who reviews the comments that he made during the late 1970s, and his talk about development and modernization to the western press, will realize how clever al-Gosaibi was in describing the solution to this problem.
Mohammed Jaber Al-Ansari, a renowned Arab intellectual once described him as ‘a reformer from the inside’. Al-Gosaibi’s behind the scene role was often more important than his public position, and perhaps this was the secret behind the trust shown in him at the political level, for he outstripped a number of ministers who made important political contributions, however Ghazi’s true importance was in his political awareness, or more precisely, his political talent, which ensured his survival on the Saudi Arabian political scene throughout this period. He demonstrated an ability to cope with difficult circumstances, and bounced back after each crisis with renewed confidence in himself. He made mistakes, as he said himself, but the important thing was his ability to reinvent himself afterwards.
During the second Gulf War, his column “In the Eye of the Storm” published in ‘Asharq al-Awsat’, was the most prominent voice against political demagogy at the time. As for his debates with the followers of the Islamic awakening, this proved that he was not afraid to face his opponents, despite the kind of accusations that were being leveled against him. These were on a personal and religious level, and his stance against the Islamic awakening encouraged a number of intellectuals to criticize this politicized religious movement at its peak.
As for the political level, al-Gosaibi’s political view was a combination of conservatism and reform. He was in favour of civil modernization along western lines and consolidating relations with the outside world, yet at the same time he had a sense of Arab nationalism, and was skeptical about the peace process. This was particularly reflected in his literature, and this perhaps explains his enthusiasm when he wrote a poem lamenting a Palestinian female suicide bomber in 2002 during his tenure as Saudi Ambassador to the UK. It was an error in judgment that one of his friends summed up by saying “with Ghazi, poetry outweighs politics.”
Perhaps the book ‘America and Saudi Arabia: A Media Campaign or Political Confrontation’ (2002) reveals Ghazi’s conservative side. This book is considered an example of his suspicion towards Western policies, which are on a par with Arab policies, when viewed through a conspiracy theory lens. However, those close to him say that we must always separate between Ghazi the technocrat, who puts ‘Saudi Arabia first’, and Ghazi the writer and poet who longs to be part of the Arab people. He was once asked: “how would you rather be remembered, as a minister or a poet?” He replied, “as a poet, because the word is immortal while political offices come and go.”
In his final book, ‘The Accompanying Minister’, Ghazi wrote: “I remember a story I once heard about President Bourguiba. One of his ministers went to him and asked him to accept his resignation, due to his illness and old age. The President strongly refused to do so. He said that if he died as an ordinary citizen, and was buried as an ordinary citizen, then no one would feel his death. However, if he died as a minister and was buried as a minister, then there would be a solemn military procession to mark his death. In other words, he would die in a manner that befits his honor.”
Dr. Ghazi al-Gosaibi died as a minister, and perhaps there was no military procession, but the deluge of articles written in his honor bidding him farewell surpass even the grandest military parade. People will remember him as both a poet and a minister.