A prominent Saudi journalist who conducted several interviews with Osama bin Laden and once tried to persuade him to quit violence resigned Sunday as editor of the nation's leading newspaper.
Jamal Khashoggi resigned from the helm of Al-Watan daily and denied speculations his move was due to external pressures following the publication of an article criticizing religious hardliners in the kingdom, in an interview with Al Arabiya.
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."
“There is no successful editor in chief who likes to resign, but particular conditions prompted me to take this move,” Khashoggi said in an interview with Al Arabiya on Sunday.
“But I will not be far from Al-Watan not from the press, and I will come back, Allah willing, one way or another in of one of the journalism venues,” Khashoggi added.
Khashoggi denied speculations that his move was due to pressures for his stance perceived as too critical of religious hardliners.
"I do not know any reasons why someone would ask for my resignation or for a change in the newspaper," he told Al Arabiya.
“The newspaper has been very successful and has faced no problems or pressures, but for anyone who works in journalism there is success and there are mistakes.”
“Unfortunately some only remembers mistakes and forgets successes. I have covered reforms taking place in the kingdom and this type of coverage will continue and the newspaper will stay the same.”
Clash with conservatives
But Khashoggi’s resignation came three days after Al-Watan published a controversial column by poet Ibrahim al-Almaee criticizing Salafism, which advocates returning to the fundamentals of Islam.
The article disputed Salafists' rejection of popular religious traditions such as patronizing 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 realize what the article meant."
The newspaper's staff expressed shock at his resignation.
"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."
U.S.-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 criticizing 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 Islam, 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.
The independent news website Massdar.net reported that Al-Watan had brought in a new opinion page manager to tone down coverage and reduce the pressure.
The result, according to Sabbagh, was that many writers, including himself, had found their columns being blocked from publication.
Khashoggi said that Al-Watan must push a progressive agenda, arguing that fighting for more women's rights "is not an issue of religion."
"But at the same time it must be for the purity of Islam."
"We know we are in the middle of a debate" on the development of Saudi society, he said.
"I don't see any contradiction in being a progressive Saudi and not supporting this article."
Khashoggi had followed Osama bin Laden's career since the 1980s and had interviewed the a-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.