Saudi religious police's decline under spotlight

Saudi Arabia's religious police, notorious for enforcing sex segregation, have for decades wielded unbridled powers as arbiters of morality. In recent years, the country has launched a series of reforms, including gradually diminishing the religious
Saudi Arabia's religious police, notorious for enforcing sex segregation, have for decades wielded unbridled powers as arbiters of morality. In recent years, the country has launched a series of reforms, including gradually diminishing the religious police's powers to arrest.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Street dance video highlights rift between conservatives and youth

RIYADH • A veiled Saudi woman and an unrelated man jig and twirl on a busy street, stirring a furious debate about the waning influence of the once-feared religious police, notorious for enforcing sex segregation.

For decades the "mutawa", as the religious police are known, wielded unbridled powers as arbiters of morality, patrolling the streets and malls to snare women wearing bright nail polish and chastise men seeking contact with the opposite sex.

In recent years, Saudi Arabia has launched a series of reforms, including gradually diminishing the mutawa's powers to arrest. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has also further cut back the political role of hardline clerics in a historic reordering of the Saudi state.

The video of the street dance - no minor infraction in a society steeped in conservatism - has roiled public opinion as it surfaced this week, prompting calls for the couple to be arrested. The authorities pledged swift action amid raging commentary on social media, which laid bare the resentment in conservative quarters over the mutawa's diminishing presence and the uncertainty over their future role.

The mutawa, who fall under a government agency known as the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Their declining presence has also been met with relief from many of the country's young. Tearing down partitions dividing the genders, many restaurants in Riyadh are now seen humming with music and mixed-gender crowds, a scene unimaginable until two years ago.

In recent weeks, columnists in Saudi newspapers such as the prominent pro-government Okaz have even openly called for the mutawa to be abolished, arguing that they are an unnecessary financial burden.

Their decline comes as 32-year-old Prince Mohammed - himself a millennial in a country where half the population is under 25 - pursues a liberalisation drive that has upended years of conservative tradition. He has lifted bans on women driving and cinemas, as well as introduced an array of entertainment and sporting options, sidelining the kingdom's arch-conservatives, once the traditional backers of the royal family. Opposition to the Prince's reforms has been muted - at least publicly - after his crackdown on dissent, including arrests of prominent clerics with millions of followers on social media.

"The influence of conservative clerics has always been exaggerated," said Saudi researcher Hesham Alghannam of Britain's University of Exeter. "Girls' sports, cinemas, concerts or even the disbanding of religious police are not things they can prevent from happening. The kingdom is able to push through such reforms without expecting a backlash."

Still, there is a delicate balance between social liberalisation and alienating conservatives, and the authorities appear careful not to antagonise religious sensitivities.

"There is a difference between moderate Islam and no Islam at all," said a Riyadh-based businessman, requesting anonymity as he did not want to be seen as criticising the Prince. "Aside from upholding public morals, the mutawa also went after drug dealers and criminals harassing the public."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 10, 2018, with the headline 'Saudi religious police's decline under spotlight'. Print Edition | Subscribe