Changing times for Saudi Arabia’s once feared morality police

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RIYADH (AFP) – 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.

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 grumbled bitterly at the changing times.

“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.

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 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.

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. 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.

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.

Mr Turki, another former mutawa agent who also asked for his name to be changed, said the institution he worked for a decade effectively “no longer exists”.

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