The cost of reining in the religious police in Saudi Arabia

Sunday 24/04/2016

Ever since a Saudi royal decree took away the right of arrest from the religious police and reduced their role to giving only moral guidance, opinion in the conserv­ative kingdom has been divided on the move.
Those opposed to the decree curtailing the powers of the Committee for the Propagation of Good and the Prevention of Vice (CPGPV) have framed their arguments within religious premises akin to dogmas held by the Muslim Brotherhood or Islamic State (ISIS).
These are the same voices that, not long ago, were calling on everyone to show obedience to the king and never oppose his decisions. And yet, we find them loudly expressing opposition to the royal decree.
Saudis have relied for decades on religious men for guidance and supervision, in the absence of independent civil or cultural institutions. Such institutions were not allowed to exist without religious oversight or without committing to observe many of the religious restrictions against music, singing and mixing of the sexes.
Suddenly these controlling bodies are having difficulty realising that they were not needed and that the Saudis are capable of leading perfectly normal lives, just like all the other people on Earth.
Saudi Arabia has been subjected to attacks in Western media that allege that ISIS extremism has its roots in Saudi culture and strict religious doctrines. Saudi authorities needed to counter the charges quickly and intelligently without deference to anyone. Authorities have to walk a fine line between maintaining the religious credibility underlying the Saudi state without becoming a backward government dominated by the religious establishment.
The case against the CPGPV was strengthened by a series of scandals regarding the behaviour of some of its members. These officials abused their powers and people’s rights and freedoms. The violent manhandling of a woman over her attire in front of a Riyadh mall and the arrest and wrongful accusations regarding alcohol abuse against journalist Ali Al- Alyani were very embarrassing for Saudi authorities.
The so-called guardians of virtue and morality have succeeded in making simple people believe that, with the committee’s powers curtailed, Saudi society will turn into another Las Vegas. Immorality will be rampant and chaos will replace order. Women will turn to depravity and men become flesh-hungry wolves.
In reality, this is pure fantasy. None of it has happened before nor will it happen in the future.
In its psychological and social make-up, Saudi society is no different than other Gulf or Arab countries. Saudi society is fundamentally conservative and will certainly remain so.
Finally, the Saudi authorities have shown a great deal of political will by responding to voices from the country’s intelligentsia who have for years called for either removing the CPGPV or restraining and integrating its role within the functions of the security forces.
The Saudi government also seized on the opportunity to present itself to the international community as a reformist one that does not hesitate to make necessary changes and innovations as long as they are for the common good.
But will there be a political price for these bold reforms, particularly towards the official representatives of the highest religious institution in the country, the Council of Senior Scholars? After all, council members were not consulted on the decision regarding the CPGPV nor were they previously consulted about including women on the Shura Council and municipal councils.
The answer to this important question will remain vague unless this latest reformist decision is followed by equally bold royal decrees touching on women’s rights, freedom of expression and the independence of cultural and civil institutions in Saudi Arabia.