Saudi Arabia: Cleric Tries to Rein In Saudi Morality Police

The Wall Street Journal

The cleric who heads the Saudi morality police said he is taking steps to rein in the force, the latest move by authorities aimed at improving the position of women in Saudi society amid a public outcry in social media.Sheik Abdulatif al-Sheikh, appointed by King Abdullah in January to head the religious police, told The Wall Street Journal that he plans to distribute guidelines to all members of his force making clear that they don't have the power to arrest or interrogate Saudi citizens, or to attend trials.

The move follows public criticism of the aggressive tactics of some members of the force, including an incident in July when a man was killed and his family was injured when their car crashed off a bridge while being pursued by religious police. The incident sparked an outcry on social-media sites.

Reform Efforts

Recent changes by Saudi King Abdullah

"I cannot deny that there were several violations committed by members of the force, some of which happened because of the lack of clear guidelines or understanding," Mr. Sheikh said in the interview. "So we are planning, God willing, to introduce clear guidelines and mechanisms for the field work of the members of the force."

The responsibilities of the 4,000-member force, known as the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, include enforcing strict gender separation in public places, and ensuring shops and businesses are closed during prayer times.

Members are known for harassing women on the streets and in malls for conduct or dress they consider a violation of Saudi Arabia's strict interpretation of Islamic law. Such incidents have become more prominent as some women take videos of their encounters and post them on YouTube.

Mr. Sheikh said individual members of the religious police will be held accountable for their actions when they violate the new guidelines. "The Hia'a was created as a guidance body and we want to make sure it is just a guidance authority," he said. "If a member of the public does not comply with the Islamic law and a member of committee wants to stop this behavior, he will have to act in accordance with our laws and revert to the regular police for any further action."

Some observers are skeptical of the durability of Mr. Sheikh's reforms, predicting he will meet tough opposition from rank-and-file members of the Hia'a.

"He may have the political backing of King Abdullah, but he does not have the religious police culture or way of thinking," said Stéphane Lacroix, a France-based expert on Saudi Arabia's Islamic movements.

In past abuses by religious police, "they have mostly escaped accountability for such abuses," said Dina El Mamoun, a researcher on Saudi Arabia for Amnesty International in London. "It remains to be seen whether such abuses carried out by them will decrease and whether they would be made accountable."

Mr. Sheikh's effort follows moves by King Abdullah to loosen some restrictions on Saudis and improve the position of women in Saudi society, changes intended to ease the kind of social and economic pressures that fueled the Arab Spring revolutions that challenged governments across the region.

The king decreed last year that women would be able to vote in municipal elections and take positions in the Shura council, the king's advisory body. Two Saudi women represented the kingdom at the Olympics for the first time this year, despite a ban on women taking part in sports inside the kingdom.

King Abdullah's appointment in January of Mr. Sheikh was also seen as a reformist move.

Mr. Sheikh has a relatively liberal image, having argued in the past that ikhtilat, the social mixing of men and women, isn't proscribed by Islamic law, and that women should be allowed to work even if it involves encountering men. His appointment by King Abdullah came less than 24 hours after the posting of a YouTube video allegedly showing religious police beating a local family.

Although the ruling Al Saud family and senior religious authorities have maintained a close alliance, they have sometimes clashed over the government's attempts to limit the role of religion in education, to give women greater freedoms, and to standardize the country's Islamic legal system.

"The Saudi regime is conscious, particularly because of new media, about the image of the kingdom and how it is being portrayed in the West," Mr. Lacroix said. "There is now a huge debate on what could be the role of the religious police in a modern society."

Long a tradition and formally institutionalized by the state in the 1930s, the religious police reached the peak of their powers in the 1980s and 1990s, especially during the backlash against foreign influence in the kingdom after the influx of U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia that followed the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

When 47 women drove through Riyadh in 1990 to protest an unwritten ban on female driving, the religious police listed the women's names and phone numbers in pamphlets branding them as prostitutes and communists, and the women subsequently lost their jobs.

The power of the religious police, known in Arabic as the Hia'a, has been on the wane since the 1990s, Mr. Lacroix said.

A turning point came in March 2002, when many Saudis were outraged when members of the religious police were said to have prevented girls from escaping a burning Saudi school because they weren't wearing the correct Islamic dress. Fifteen girls died in the fire.