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Saga of a fired Saudi minister shows King Fahd's dilemma

The writer recently returned to the United States after living in Saudi Arabia for several years. This last of three articles draws on contacts with the government and the royal family. The House of Saud is facing a new phenomenon: the growing restlessness of the middle class.

Declining oil income is forcing the government to limit its formerly lavish distribution of money. King Fahd is confronting competition between the royal family, which wants to preserve its privileges, and the middle class, whose political awareness is rising.

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The King's abrupt and public firing last spring of the nation's popular health minister, Ghazi Gosaibi, is indicative of the conflict.

Through the 1970s and into the '80s, Dr. Gosaibi became a model and a mentor for a generation of young bureaucrats that emerged as a result of Saudi Arabia's development policies of the 1970s. The American-educated Gosaibi was regarded as the most effective of the technocrat ministers. He is also a leading intellectual and social commentator and is considered among the best Arab poets writing today. It is in his writing, both in English and Arabic, that he pricked the sacred cows most effectively.

Nurtured by Fahd, Gosaibi rose through the ranks of the Saudi bureaucracy to become minister of industry and electricity in 1975. He sat on the Council of Ministers, where insiders say he was the most outspoken of the nonroyal members. In 1982 Gosaibi became minister of health. His problems began when he decided to reorganize the health services.

The King Faisal Specialist Hospital is the flagship of the Saudi health care system. Its director at the time was Nizar Fetieh, an American-trained doctor. According to sources in the Ministry of Health, by 1984 Fetieh had amassed considerable power by humoring less important members of the royal family.

Gosaibi's attempt to build a comprehensive health care system depended on bringing both the military and National Guard hospitals, controlled by Crown Prince Abdullah and Defense and Aviation Minister Prince Sultan, as well as the King Faisal Hospital, under the Ministry of Health. This pitted him against Abdullah and Sultan, and led to a messy and public row with Fetieh.

According to sources linked with the Ministry of Industry and Electricity, Gosaibi claimed he could run the military and National Guard hospitals for much less than was being done, implying that the extra costs were going into the pockets of Sultan and Abdullah.

Gosaibi challenged Sultan on the propriety of a Spanish defense contract that had not been put up for public bid. He also insulted the deputy commander of the National Guard on the quality of his poetry, according to people close to Abdullah's entourage. Added to this was Gosaibi's public feud with Nizar Fetieh.

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According to diplomatic sources, in December 1983 Gosaibi intervened in the King Faisal Hospital's internal squabbles between Fetieh and his staff and sought to oust Fetieh, incurring the wrath of his patrons.

Regardless of the King's affection for Gosaibi, irresistable pressures from the royal family were building for Gosaibi's dismissal. The senior princes wanted him out because he had trod on their turf; Fetieh's supporters blamed Gosaibi for Fetieh's problems.

Last March, perhaps seeing the handwriting on the wall, Gosaibi published in the newspaper Al-Jazeerah what will probably go down as his most famous poem. Its publication caused a storm of political discussion, in itself a rare event in Saudi Arabia.

It was never stated that the poem was meant for Fahd, but the opening phrases left little doubt who the poet-minister was addressing:

``Why should I go on singing while there are a thousand slanderers and backbiters going between you and me?'' the poem went. It ended with, ``Tell the slanderers that I am coming with white banner held high so that they may walk and run in my earth.''

Within days Gosaibi was fired.

Gosaibi's dismissal caused consternation among segments of the middle class. Even members of the royal family discussed the episode with outsiders. Evidently the King became concerned enough about the outcry to appoint Gosaibi last October to the politically safe but trivial job as ambassador to the sheikhdom of Bahrain.

Crown Prince Abdullah, who has always been regarded as an anathema to the middle class, is rising in stature. He reflects the people's image of a tribal sheikh -- pious, strong, and generous. Abdullah insists that Saudi Arabia not become tied to the West but rather stake out its own position in the world. This feeling holds sway over the emotions of many Saudis.

Abdullah lives quietly, keeps his contacts with the people, and upholds traditional values. Abdullah, in concert with Sultan, distrusts the middle class and is the most protective of the family turf.

The House of Saud is at a crossroads. The senior members of the family are seen as too astute politically to ignore the middle class's rumblings of discontent. The question is whether they have the ability to control the rest of the family, which numbers in excess of 3,000 people and ranges from the elegant foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, to pimply-faced adolescents in polyester clothes.

Although the major decisions are made by the senior princes, no family member can rule without the broad support of the total family. Fahd, more cosmopolitan than the rest of royal family and more interested in Saudi Arabia's external affairs, apparently lacks the patience to mediate family squabbles.

The other great unknown is whether the middle class will mobilize itself to try to force change. Would Gosaibi dare move to organize his constituency to force political change in the form of creation of some representative body? No one knows. In the meantime, Ghazi al-Gosaibi quietly rides his horse around his garden in Riyadh.

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