Times of change and frustration for the morality police of Saudi Arabia

“Everything that should have been banned is now allowed, so I resigned.” Faisal’s testimony reflects the frustration of former members of Saudi Arabia’s morality police at the monarchy’s incipient openness, especially to women.

Previously tasked with enforcing a strict application of Islamic law, the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, called Mutawa, was set aside in 2016 in this ultra-conservative country trying to clean up its international image.

The Mutawa was “deprived of all its prerogatives” and “no longer has a clear role,” the 37-year-old Saudi in dark clothes, who uses the pseudonym Faisal to protect his identity, told AFP.

From conduct judged immoral to drug trafficking or alcohol smuggling, the feared religious police did not neglect any front.

For decades, its agents punished women who did not wear the abaya correctly, a wide black cloak that covers the entire body, or young people who did not respect a strict segregation between the sexes.

With the appointment of Mohamed bin Salman in 2017 as crown prince and his growing influence in power, the rules on the abaya have been relaxed, mixing of the sexes has been trivialized and shops are no longer required to close during prayers.

Since then, the religious police have lost prominence, although human rights NGOs warn that the repression has not disappeared with the new prince, but has even increased with fierce campaigns against all critical voices, including feminist militants.

– “Only in the form” –

“Before we were only talking about the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue. Today we are only talking about the General Authority for Entertainment,” says Faisal ironically, referring to a public institution created in 2016 that organizes pop and electronic music festivals and concerts.

A former Mutawa agent, Turki (pseudonym) confirms that the institution he has worked for “exists only in form.”

“You no longer have the right to intervene, or to change the behaviors you consider inappropriate,” he laments, assuring that many employees continue “only for salary.”

Smoking a cigarette with a friend in the center of Riyadh, Lama does not empathize with the fate of these agents who have terrorized her in the past.

“A few years ago, I would never have thought of smoking in the street,” explains Lama, with an open abaya that reveals her clothes. “They would have hit us with their batons,” he laughs to AFP.

Almost invisible, most agents no longer have contact with the population and spend their days in their offices, developing awareness campaigns on good manners or sanitary measures.

Mutawa is now “isolated”, says an anonymous Saudi official, assuring that there was “a significant drop in the number of employees”.

– ‘Saudi identity’ –

The Mutawa assures that it wants to reform, in a very young country with more than half of the population under 35 years of age.

In an October interview on local television, his boss Abdul Rahman Al Sanad admitted “abuses” by some agents who performed security functions without any “experience or qualification.” He also stated that the commission would hire women.

For the Saudi writer Saud al-Katib, the isolation and limitation of powers of the morality police constitute a “radical change”.

But the authorities cannot afford to get rid of it entirely, according to Gulf specialist Stéphane Lacroix.

“It refers to a certain Saudi identity that many Saudi conservatives cling to,” says the professor at Sciences-Po University in Paris, who foresees “a reorientation” of his role in the future.

ht / sy / str-aem / vl / dbh / mis


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