RIYADH: Prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi resigned on Sunday 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."
Prince Bandar named deputy editor Sulayman Al-Aquili as interim editor-in-chief.
The resignation, which came hours after Khashoggi celebrated his third marriage on Saturday, was unexpected, and Saudi journalists said they believed it was the result of pressure from high levels of the government.
It followed a year of tensions with authorities and religious conservatives over numerous articles and columns viewed as critical of the ultra-conservative Wahhabi Islam which dominates Saudi life.
The move came three days after Al-Watan published a controversial column criticising Salafism.
"It was a sudden shock even for Jamal himself," Mahmud Sabbagh, an Al-Watan columnist, told AFP. "There was a lot of pressure lately aimed at deterring the progressive stance of Al-Watan’s opinion section."
"We are in shock, we are in grief. For us, it was sudden," said another Al-Watan journalist.
Khashoggi himself could not be reached for comment.
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 by Ibrahim Al-Alma’ee published last Thursday was the "last straw," Sabbagh said.
Salafism is the advocacy of returning to the fundamentals of Islam, and its adherents today generally emphasise emulating the practices and beliefs of early Muslims.
US-educated Khashoggi was respected internationally as someone who built Al-Watan newspaper 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 Obama’s first trip to the Middle East in June 2009.
It was the second time Khashoggi resigned from the helm of 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’s writers have aggressively poked at the contradictions and oppressive effects of Saudi Islam, especially with regard to women.
Religious conservatives, under pressure from numerous sides to bow to social change, have focused on Al-Watan as a key enemy, said one of the newspaper’s reporters.
The independent news website Massdar.com reported that Al-Watan had brought in a new opinion page manager to tone down the coverage and reduce the pressure from conservatives.
The result, according to Sabbagh, was that many writers, including himself, had found their columns being blocked from publication in recent weeks.
Khashoggi himself is religiously conservative but became concerned over how Islam was used to justify the Al-Qaeda attacks on the United States and elsewhere, Al-Watan reporter Wael Mahdi told AFP.
He had followed Osama bin Laden’s career since the 1980s and had interviewed the Al-Qaeda chief several times.
"Jamal’s major issue was terrorism and not social change. He wanted a new Salafism that doesn’t have in it seeds for terrorism," Mahdi said.
Khashoggi’s knew bin Laden during his formative years as a radical Islamist and interviewed him in Afghanistan in 1987 during the fight against Russian occupation.
Although he met bin Laden several times, the Al-Qaeda founder was unwilling to return to Saudi Arabia.