Changing times for Saudi's once feared morality police

16/1/2022 1:00:00 PM

Changing times for Saudi's once feared morality police

Saudi Arabia, Women's Rights

Changing times for Saudi's once feared morality police

RIYADH — In deeply conservative Saudi Arabia the religious police once elicited terror, chasing men and women out of malls to pray and berating anyone seen mingling with the opposite sex.

The notorious morality police — officially titled the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, but known simply as the mutawa — were previously tasked with enforcing the observance of Islamic moral law.Some restrictions have been eased on women's rights, allowing them to drive, attend sports events and concerts alongside men, and obtain passports without the approval of a male guardian.

"Before, the main authority known in Saudi Arabia was the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue. Today, the most important one is the General Entertainment Authority," he added sarcastically.The rules now on the abaya have been relaxed, mixing between men and women has become more common, and businesses are no longer forced to close during the five daily prayer times.

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But the stick-wielding guardians of public morality have watched gloomily as in recent years their country eased some social restrictions — especially for women — and grumble bitterly at the changing times.Copy to clipboard https://str...

"Anything I should ban is now allowed, so I quit," Mr Faisal, a former officer, who asked to use a pseudonym to protect his identity, told AFP. Saudi Arabia, home to the two holiest Muslim sites, has long been associated with a rigid branch of Islam known as Wahhabism. Some suggested that if Nato did not"go out of area", beyond Europe, it would"go out of business. The notorious morality police — officially titled the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, but known simply as the mutawa — were previously tasked with enforcing the observance of Islamic moral law. That included overseeing any action considered immoral, from drug trafficking to bootleg smuggling — alcohol remains illegal — down to monitoring social behaviour including the strict segregation of the sexes. But the alliance still seemed on its way to obsolescence, hobbled by a lack of purpose and disunity. But the force was sidelined in 2016, as the oil-rich Arab kingdom tried to shake off its austere and ultra-sexist image.

Some restrictions have been eased on women's rights, allowing them to drive, attend sports events and concerts alongside men, and obtain passports without the approval of a male guardian. President Emmanuel Macron of France bemoaned its"brain death. DEPRIVED OF ‘ITS PREROGATIVES’ The mutawa has been"deprived of all its prerogatives" and"no longer has a clear role", said Mr Faisal, 37, dressed in dark traditional robes. "Before, the main authority known in Saudi Arabia was the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue. But Russian President Vladimir Putin's extraordinary new demands and threats, following his military buildup on the borders of Ukraine, has brought Nato back to basics - containing Russian power and imperium. Today, the most important one is the General Entertainment Authority," he added sarcastically. He was referring to the government agency that organises events, including a performance last year by Canadian pop star Justin Bieber at the Saudi Formula One Grand Prix car race and a four-day electronic music festival. NATO'S PURPOSE It may be just what a lagging alliance has needed.

For decades, the mutawa's agents cracked down on women who did not properly wear the abaya, an enveloping loose black dress worn over the clothes. The rules now on the abaya have been relaxed, mixing between men and women has become more common, and businesses are no longer forced to close during the five daily prayer times. After last year's fiasco of Afghanistan and the humiliation of France in the Australian submarine deal, she said,"We were all thinking that we have serious problems in the alliance, and we might need to rethink the foundation of this relationship. Mr Turki, another ex-mutawa agent who also asked for his name to be changed, said the institution he worked for a decade effectively"no longer exists". Those officers who remain do so"only for the salary", he said. The talks allowed Putin to revisit Russian grievances over how the Cold War ended, in hopes of placing them back on the table for renegotiation 30 years later. "We no longer have the right to intervene, nor to change behaviours that were considered inappropriate", he added.

‘HIT US WITH STICKS’ Since becoming Saudi Arabia's de facto leader in 2017, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has sought to position himself as a champion of"moderate" Islam, even as his international reputation took a hit from the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. But the more the discussion evoked the Cold War - with its firm dividing line through Europe, and its competing Russian and Western systems and spheres of influence - the more it reminded European and American allies of Nato's purpose. For writer Saud al-Katib, the reduction of the mutawa's power constitutes a"significant and radical change". Many ordinary Saudis such as Ms Lama, a woman puffing a cigarette in the centre of the capital Riyadh, say they are not shedding tears for the agents. That threat now is more than territorial, she said. "We would not have imagined smoking in the street a few years ago," said Ms Lama, her flowing abaya robe open to show her clothes beneath. "They would have hit us with their sticks," she said laughing. "Russia is targeting our elections, our social media, our parliaments and our citizens, and it is become more obvious now that Russia is not part of our value system," Wieslander said.

Rather than patrolling the streets, mutawa agents now spend much of their time behind their desks, developing awareness campaigns on good morals or health measures. The mutawa is now"isolated", said a Saudi official who requested anonymity, noting"a significant drop in the number of its employees". NATO MEMBERSHIP Nato is especially important now for those states bordering Russia, like the Baltic nations and Poland, a country which has had deepening strains with its European partners over the protection of core democratic principles, which Brussels has accused the government in Warsaw of eroding. ‘SAUDI IDENTITY’ Mutawa leader Abdel Rahman al-Sanad wants to reform the force — in a country where more than half of the population is under 35 years old — and has even told a local television station the commission would recruit women. MrSanad has admitted some agents had in the past committed"abuses", and carried out work without any"experience or qualification". Ukraine has proved especially vulnerable to Russian threats perhaps precisely because it is not a Nato member. Mr Ahmad bin Kassem al-Ghamdi, a former senior mutawa official ousted in 2015 because of his progressive views, said the commission's"biggest mistakes were following individual mistakes" by some officers.

This, he told AFP,"caused an adverse and negative" impact to its image. There was also anxiety that President Joe Biden, in trying to stabilise relations with Russia to pivot toward China, would bargain away forward-based Nato troops in Poland and the Baltics that were deployed after 2014. But the authorities cannot afford to get rid of it completely, according to Dr Stephane Lacroix, an expert on the region and a professor at France's Sciences Po university. The mutawa are linked"to a certain Saudi identity to which many conservative Saudis adhere," Dr Lacroix said. Still, he said, the current crisis"is a very clear consequence of the US pivot to Asia and the realisation of Russia that it might now take advantage of that reorientation of US fundamental security interests," he said. But, while some things have changed, others have not. Although the religious police have seen their powers wane, alongside the reforms have come a crackdown on dissidents — including intellectuals and women's rights activists." Russia will continue to press for a new security framework in Europe, and Europe without the United States is not prepared to play any significant role, he said, so"for Poland, Nato is the key and irreplaceable element.

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