New Saudi guidelines curtail powers of religious police

Aya Batrawy

Dubai, United Arab Emirates — Saudi Arabia has issued new guidelines to define and curtail powers of the country’s religious police, instructing its members to be “gentle and humane” in dealing with the public.

The force, which is tasked with ensuring people observe the kingdom’s ultraconservative Islamic codes, has been criticized at times for its intrusive, even deadly tactics.

The members of the religious police, known as Mutawas, are not allowed to chase people down the street or demand to see a person’s ID or other documents. The directives also say the Mutawas are not to entrap or arrest people, specifying that this is exclusively the jurisdiction of the police and drug enforcement officials.

The semiautonomous Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice — as the force of roughly 5,000 is also known — patrols parks, streets and malls, combats drug use, bars unrelated men and women from mingling in public and ensures stores close for daily prayers. It is also one of several government agencies that monitor online activity in the kingdom.

Often, Mutawas have stopped men and women driving in cars or walking in public places, demanding to see proof they are married or directly related. The new directives appear to be an attempt to change that, though it is unclear how the measure will be implemented in practice.

The kingdom adheres to an ultraconservative interpretation of Islam. Women must wear long, loose robes known as abayas when in public and are not permitted to mingle with unrelated men or to drive cars. Most Saudi women additionally cover their faces with a veil known as the niqab when in public.

However, in recent years, online videos have gone viral of Saudi women talking back to members of the religious police when the Mutawas tried to kick them out of malls for wearing nail polish, showing their faces, wearing makeup — or even just for showing gloveless hands.

The new guidelines essentially codify the reach of the Mutawas, who do not have a procedural manual.

The directives say members of the religious police must wear visible identification badges with their name, work location and duration of work hours.

The Mutawas were also told to be “gentle and humane” in their outreach with the public. The commission, which already reports directly to the king, will no longer be overseen by the Interior Ministry but exclusively by the monarch.

The directives also stipulate that men who work for the force “must be of good character and behavior, known for their good reputation” and must not have been sentenced to longer than one year in prison or have been convicted of crimes of dishonesty.

Though the force had been in the past told not to chase people, members were accused by the public of violating these orders when two brothers were killed in a high-speed chase for playing loud music on Saudi Arabia’s National Day in 2013.

In 2002, the religious police were accused of preventing the rescue of girls trapped in a school fire because they were not wearing abayas and head coverings as they attempted to flee the all-female building. Fourteen girls died in the fire, though the director of the force at the time denied his staff had prevented rescuers from entering the school.

More recently in February, reports emerged that several members of the commission were arrested after they pursued two girls at a mall in the capital, Riyadh. One of the girls was filmed, apparently pushed to the ground, which exposed her leg as she fell.