MANAMA, BAHRAIN — Ghazi al Gosaibi is a man whom the perpetually sedate Saudis find it impossible to have quiet opinions about. He is adored as a lyricist of the Arabian desert, hailed as a crusader against corruption--and reviled by traditionalists as a champion of change.
To Saudi Arabia's burgeoning, Westward-looking middle class, Gosaibi is something of an inspiration. To the Islamic conservatives fighting what they see as the dangerous influence of secularism in the kingdom, he is anathema. He hails from neither camp. He is an aristocrat, a bureaucrat, an essayist, a diplomat and a poet.
Saudi Arabia's soft-spoken ambassador to Bahrain, ousted from the Cabinet of ministers after he penned a defiant poem to the king, remains one of the Arab world's leading intellectuals and an occasional unofficial spokesman for the monarchy that has alternately nurtured and ignored him.
Gosaibi, 50, reflects as much as anyone the dizzying pace at which Saudi Arabia has rushed from a tribal desert kingdom to the most modernized state in the Arab world. His first home was a mud-brick tradesman's house in a desert oasis--with no water, no electricity and scorpions for company. His young mother died of typhoid at age 28, because there was no doctor in the town.
Today he occupies a virtual palace in the Bahraini capital and has overseen, as minister of industry and commerce, the world's largest petrochemical city and, as minister of health, a nationwide network of modern, enviably equipped hospitals.
Gosaibi, with a master's degree from the University of Southern California and a Ph.D. from London University, became a model for a generation of young bureaucrats who emerged as a result of Saudi Arabia's expansive development policies in the 1970s. Nurtured by King Fahd, the brash Cabinet minister enchanted the public when he walked into hospitals as a patient and ordered careless doctors and administrators dismissed. But Gosaibi ran into trouble when he attacked corruption among members of the royal family and inefficient management policies in the nation's hospitals. It came to a head when Gosaibi took on the king's powerful brother, Defense Minister Prince Sultan ibn Abdul Aziz, over a defense contract that had not been put out to bid.
With mounting pressure within the family against him, Gosaibi, the author of essay and poetry collections with titles like "Poems from the Isles of Pearls" and "Fever," published what was to become his most famous poem. It was never stated that it was intended for the king. Most people just assumed it. It began: "Why should I go on singing while there are a thousand slanderers and backbiters going between you and me?" And it ended: "Tell the slanderers that I am coming with white banner held high so that they may walk and run in my earth."
A few days later, Gosaibi was removed as health minister. But within a few months the king quietly installed him to the comfortable position of Bahraini ambassador. He has resided there in relative harmony, and is now considered a powerful spokesman for an intensely private nation that has few visible commentators.
Donning a gold-braided caftan, Gosaibi appears regal in his public addresses on the crisis in the Persian Gulf. But he is ever a man of contradictions. Greeting visitors at the massive front door of his Bahraini mansion, Gosaibi is wearing sandals under his long, white robe and his white headgear has been set carelessly aside. He frets over how the coffee is served. Afterward, he walks guests to their car, and waves companionably as they make their way out the massive gates.
Question: We are now a few weeks into a war no one thought would happen. There has been some sense that the reality of war is playing much differently in Saudi Arabia than the expectations. What do you think is the attitude toward the war here?
Answer: Let me say that anybody who thinks lightly of war is either a psychopath or an ignorant person. Anybody who knows anything about war would realize that war entails sacrifice, war entails pain. War means orphans and widows. This has always been the case . . . .
I think it was a very stupid thing of Saddam Hussein when he declared this war. I think we should always remember he declared this war--not us, not America, not the coalition. He went and invaded a country, which is a weak, peaceful, friendly neighbor. Hundreds of people were killed at that time, far more than any casualties so far vested in the Desert Storm battles . . . .