CAIRO, Egypt – Saudi Arabia has indefinitely banned the distribution of a leading Arab newspaper, days after the paper disclosed that a Saudi extremist had played a key role in a violent Iraqi Al Qaeda front group.
One of the kingdom's most influential journalists immediately criticized the ban, calling it a sharp retreat from recent growing press freedoms.
It was unclear if the Iraqi article was the main impetus for the ban, or merely the culmination of several weeks of disputes, mostly on other issues, between the Al Hayat newspaper and the kingdom's information minister.
Saudi officials are sensitive to criticism that extremists from the kingdom are making their way to Iraq to fight against the Shiite-led government there, although in recent months, top Saudi officials have acknowledged the problem.
Saudi officials also bristle at Western criticism that they tolerate clerics in Saudi's strict Wahhabi strain of Sunni Islam who promote extremism. The Al Hayat article laid out ties between the extremist in Iraq and some Saudi clerics.
However, a journalist close to the newspaper in Riyadh said the Iraqi article, which appeared in Monday's editions, was just one in a series of disputes with the government. In recent months, Al Hayat's Saudi office had received several warnings from the country's Information Minister, Iyad Madani, about writings by its columnists, especially one often critical of government inefficiency, said the journalist.
The journalist spoke on condition of anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity.
Al Hayat's Saudi edition did not appear on newsstands Monday and Tuesday. A private distribution firm in the kingdom, the National Company of Distribution, confirmed it had been told not to distribute the paper.
Saudi information officials had no comment, nor did Al Hayat officials in London, the paper's headquarters.
One of Saudi Arabia's most influential journalists, Dawood al-Shirian, who is a former regional director at Al Hayat and still writes a weekly column, said Al Hayat staff had told him Madani asked the newspaper recently to keep some writers off its pages. The paper refused to comply.
Madani previously had been considered something of a reformer.
"The minister believes that those writers ... are being personal in their criticism" against various Saudi ministry officials, al-Shirian said.
But al-Shirian, who now is deputy head of Al-Arabiya TV, said that by taking such action, "the minister has wrecked an image about the rising limits of freedom in the Saudi media that has been established in the past two years ... This will harm the minister and the ministry, and not Al Hayat."
The Iraq article, which still appears on the newspaper's Web site, disclosed details about Mohammad al-Thibaiti, a Saudi thought to be a key figure in the Islamic State of Iraq, a group that is a front for Al Qaeda.
The paper said al-Thibaiti, also known as Abu Sulaiman al-Otaibi, had close links to leading Wahhabi clerics inside Saudi Arabia. The newspaper also disclosed that al-Thibaiti had studied at Imam Mohammad bin Saud University, which is widely believed to be a stronghold for radical Islamist Saudis.
On Sunday, the Islamic State said in a posting on an Internet extremist site that it had replaced al-Otaibi, who had been serving as the group's "justice minister," with an Iraqi man, Abu Ishaq al-Jubouri. The extremist group said the replacement was made for "legitimate interests."
Al Hayat is owned by Prince Khaled bin Sultan, the son of the Saudi crown prince and defense minister, Prince Sultan. Prince Khaled is himself a Saudi deputy defense minister and one of the most influential members of the royal family.
Saudi papers are government-guided, with red lines usually drawn around sensitive topics. But it was not clear if the article had been vetted by any official before being printed.