Saudi’s Religious Police Return

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The vice cops seemed to have vanished as the new crown prince implemented his Vision 2030. Some Saudis are happy to see them back.

Outside a supermarket in Riyadh, a long-bearded police officer peers at a driver, glances at his female passenger and issues an order: “You should stay away from women.”

The trouble for the young man is that women are banned from driving in Saudi Arabia. He works for a ride-sharing company and the vast majority of his customers are female. “What am I supposed to do?” he protested before shrugging and taking off. “Leave them?”

The exchange highlights the paradox that the Saudi religious police have come to embody since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, elevated this week to the heir to the throne, unveiled a transformation plan called “Vision 2030” just over a year ago.

That blueprint for life after oil means the country is attempting to modernize the economy and create jobs to bring down youth unemployment by replacing foreigners with Saudis, including drivers for Uber and local competitor Careem. What’s harder is to reconcile the inevitable social change with an ultra-conservative strain of Islam like nowhere else on earth.

Saudi women leave a mall after shopping in Riyadh.
Photographer: FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images

The foot-soldiers in short, white robes and unadorned headdresses seemed to have all but vanished from Riyadh last year after the government barred them from making arrests or questioning people. But recently, as some Saudis complain of creeping immorality, they’re back in many areas of the capital, rebuking men and women for mixing in public and clamping down on uncovered hair, albeit a little more politely.

It’s because they often serve as a counterweight when Saudi Arabia moves toward more social lenience, said Crispin Hawes, managing director at Teneo Intelligence. Their return is a kind of natural “pendulum swing,” he said. “The system is navigating itself through slightly uncharted waters.”

Promoting Virtue

After Mohammed bin Salman’s anointment on Wednesday, Saudis used Twitter to list their hopes for the “new age.” The return of the religious police was among the demands, along with jobs, affordable housing, women’s rights, ejecting foreigners and “holding the liberals accountable.”

The officers have retreated and come back before. For instance, in 2002, the Interior Ministry told them to go easy on enforcing strict moral codes on youth. That came as Saudi Arabia sought to project a less extreme image following the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. the year before and after a fatal school fire in which eyewitnesses said the religious police stopped girls from fleeing because they weren’t properly covered.

The police, formally the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice and just known locally as the “hay’ah,” didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Charged with enforcing rules like gender segregation and business closures for prayer, the commission is an embarrassment to some Saudis and a beloved symbol of the country’s Islamic identity to others.

Saudi newspapers have reported. Legally, they can’t do much more than rebuke people, and when they cruise the streets droning “prayer, prayer” into megaphones, many Saudis simply ignore them.

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