‘Defanged’ Saudi religious police bring relief, foreboding


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

In recent years, Saudi Arabia launched a series of reforms, including gradually diminishing the mutawa’s powers to arrest.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has further cut back the political role of hardline clerics in a historic reordering of the Saudi state.

The brief video of the street dance — no minor infraction in a society steeped in conservatism — roiled public opinion as it surfaced this week, prompting calls for the couple to be arrested.

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.

“Where are the religious police?” was a popular refrain among angry Saudi social media users, with some also asking “Why are they silent?” and “Does their silence mean approval?”

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 AFP’s repeated requests for comment.

‘Backlash’: The mutawa’s 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.

One segregated cafe was seen taking down their partitions as soon as patrolling mutawa, dressed in white robes and red-checkered headscarves, left the area.

In recent weeks, columnists in Saudi newspapers such as the prominent pro-government Okaz have openly, and some would say daringly, 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 and 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.

High-profile clerics who made regular appearances on television have disappeared from the public eye, and prominent Sheikh Aaidh al-Qarni recently declared to have “divorced” himself from politics.

Self-styled religious scholars recently appeared on Saudi TV shows advocating against shutting down businesses during prayer time, an idea once anathema in the kingdom.

“The influence of conservative clerics has always been exaggerated,” Hesham Alghannam, a Saudi researcher at Britain’s University of Exeter, told AFP.

“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.”

‘Very dangerous’: Still, there is a delicate balance between social liberalisation and alienating conservatives, and authorities appear careful not to antagonise religious sensitivities.

 Published in Daily Times, February  10th 2018.