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Former Saudi ambassador to Britain and renowned Arabic poet dies of stomach cancer

CAIRO (AP) — Ghazi Algosaibi, Saudi Arabia's consummate statesman and liberal writer, died Sunday at the age of 70 from stomach cancer, relatives said.

A former ambassador to Britain, Algosaibi often represented his country at international forums and was known for his poetry and liberal religious views in an overwhelmingly conservative country that banned his writings.

"May God rest his soul, for he was someone which many in Saudi Arabia are fond of, his books, poetry and life experience. He touched the lives of many," his cousin Saud Algosaibi told The Associated Press, adding that he died of colon cancer that had spread to his stomach lining.

He was treated in the U.S. for a time and then traveled earlier this summer to Bahrain, where most of his family lives. Just before his death, he headed to Saudi Arabia, said Mounira Fakhro, a Bahraini politician and relative.

Algosaibi underwent surgery three weeks ago at Riyadh's King Faisal Specialist Hospital and had been in the intensive care unit since, said Badr al-Qahtani, a hospital official.

Algosaibi had a distinguished career in public service. He headed the ministries of health, electricity, water, industry and labor. He also served in the high-profile post of ambassador to Britain from 1992-2002.

The scion of a wealthy trading family stretching between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, Algosaibi was close to the kingdom's ruling family.

"Ghazi was a symbol of modernity in Saudi Arabia," said Khalid al-Dakhil, a pro-reform political scientist at King Saud University. He said Algosaibi's modernist views were valued by the kingdom's current monarch, King Abdullah. "He was the first to hold that position ... a bridge between the authority and modern thoughts."

Algosaibi spoke out against terrorism and extremism and called for democratic reform in the kingdom, while recognizing that it needed to be a very gradual process.

"What makes reform here slow is that Saudi Arabia has always been based on the principle of consensus. You have to wait for a viable consensus to reform before you go ahead," he said in 2005 during the country's first nationwide municipal elections.

Algosaibi was also a prolific novelist, poet and columnist. His writings were banned in Saudi Arabia because they frequently voiced criticism of ruling regimes in the region and often presented a satirical depiction of social and political mores.

In his 1994 novel "Freedom Apartment," he described the coming of age of a group of Arab university students living together in Cairo during turbulent political times in the 1960s.

It was only in the last month that the Saudi Culture Ministry lifted the ban on his writings, citing his contributions to the kingdom.

Algosaibi also came under fire in 2002 when, as an ambassador to Britain, he wrote a poem praising Palestinian suicide bombers at the height of the second Palestinian uprising.

In the poem titled "The Martyrs," Algosaibi said the bombers "died to honor God's word." Under criticism from Jewish groups, Algosaibi defended his poem and accused Israel of committing war crimes.

He studied in Cairo, California and Britain. He was also the kingdom's candidate to head UNESCO in 1999.

Algosaibi is survived by his wife, four children and eight grandchildren. He will be buried in Riyadh, and his family will hold a funeral service in Bahrain.

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Associated Press Writer Tarek El-Tablawy in Cairo contributed to this report.