RIYADH — Popular Saudi minister and poet Ghazi al-Gosaibi, who as envoy to Britain sparked outrage with an ode to a Palestinian suicide bomber, died Sunday at age 70, official Al-Akhbariya TV said.
He died of cancer in Riyadh's King Faisal Specialist Hospital, where he had been admitted about a month earlier, members of his entourage told AFP.
Gosaibi, who served as labour minister until his death, was known as both a technocrat who served four kings and an author of numerous novels and non-fiction works, in addition to his poetry.
He was Saudi ambassador to Bahrain from 1984 to 1992, and then to Britain from 1992-2002.
Gosaibi was respected by Saudi progressives for his boldness in pointing out the problems of conservative Saudi society.
As a minister charged with boosting employment among Saudis whom he said were only interested in high-paying, easy jobs, he served hamburgers in 2008 for three hours at a Jeddah fast food restaurant -- a job usually filled by foreign workers.
Gosaibi's penchant for speaking his mind got him into trouble at least twice in his career.
As minister of health in 1984, he was fired after publishing the poem "A Pen Bought and Sold" that assailed the corruption and privilege of the Saudi elite under then King Fahd.
In 2002 he was removed as ambassador in London after publishing "You are the Martyrs", an ode to Palestinian teenager Ayat Akhras, who blew herself up two weeks earlier in a Jerusalem supermarket, killing two Israelis.
The poem which praised Akhras as the "bride of the heavens" who "stands up to the criminal" and "kisses death with a smile" outraged many -- with the 2001 September 11 attacks on the United States still fresh in memory.
Gosaibi was born in Hofuf, eastern Saudi Arabia, on March 3, 1940 to a prominent and wealthy family of traders.
He earned a law degree at the University of Cairo in 1961, a masters at the University of Southern California in 1964, and a doctorate of law at the University of London in 1970.
In the 1970s he was director of the Saudi Railways Organisation, and then moved to minister of industry and electricity, where he helped pioneer development of the Saudi petrochemicals industry. After his recall from London he also served as minister of water and electricity.
As Saudi ambassador to Bahrain when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, he wrote articles blasting Arab governments and Islamist groups who criticised the Saudi-US alliance, asking how they could defend Saddam Hussein.
His 1993 book "The Gulf Crisis: An Attempt to Understand" was a hard-eyed look from the perspective of the Gulf in the war.
He published dozens of books, including essays, poetry, and love stories, some of which faced bans in his own country.
His best-known novel, "An Apartment Called Freedom" (1996), chronicled the lives of four young Bahrainis leaving their family cocoons and plunging into freewheeling, turbulent 1950s Cairo to attend university.
In 1999 he lost to Japanese Koichiro Matsuura in the race for director general of UNESCO, undermined in part by criticism that as a Saudi official, he lacked a record of standing up for civil rights and cultural freedoms.
After the September 11 attacks, he warned of a looming "clash of civilisations" and condemned Saudi-born Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden as a "human monster."
"We are worried that this has turned from a war against terrorism, which we support wholeheartedly and with no reservation, into a war of America or the West against Islam," he told the BBC.
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