Saudi religious police see their powers curtailed
London - Saudi Arabia’s religious police have been formally barred from pursuing and detaining people in what is perhaps the biggest curtailment of the group’s privileges.
Officially known as the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, or just Hai’a (Arabic for “committee”), the group traditionally patrolled Saudi cities looking for what its members perceived as violations of Islamic law. Group members often overstepped their “advisory” role and were viewed by many as routinely violating people’s civil liberties, including arrests and demanding individuals show identification.
New guidelines, however, state that Hai’a will no longer be allowed to pursue people, demand to see their identification or arrest them, emphasising that that role belongs to police and drug enforcement officials.
Curtailing Hai’a’s powers is part of a larger overhaul of their activities; in essence, redefining and codifying the committee to be more congenial in a modern era. According to new parameters set by the Saudi Council of Ministers, Hai’a members will need to meet educational and religious qualifications as well as be well-behaved, and have no criminal record or judicial rulings against them prior to joining.
The decree raised the status of the head of Hai’a to ministerial level.
News of the new guidelines set social media abuzz in Saudi Arabia. Hashtags for and against the new laws flooded Twitter, with the majority in support of the measures.
Defending the directives, Saudi media personality Abdullatif al- Sheikh wrote on his account: “This is the opinion of the council of senior scholars on this subject and who among us adds to their opinion is not one of us.”
A Saudi female user with the handle @nada_2662 wrote: “Normal, honourable and free people are obviously in favour of the resolution because they don’t perceive themselves as animals needing… a stick to go the right way!”
A user named Abu Saud, who is against the new measures, said: “The people want to expand the committee’s powers and not curtail them.” A Saudi male under the handle of @secular_forever posted: “The people are in favour of abolishing the entire body itself and not just its functions.”
Hai’a has long been a source of controversy in Saudi Arabia, with many accusing its members of overstepping boundaries. During the reign of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Hai’a members were forced into training courses to learn to how better interact with people. The king fired the head of the commission in 2012, replacing him with a more moderate chief.
However, sporadic reports of abuse continued. In 2013, a car chase resulted in a crash, killing two young people who were being pursued by Hai’a members. In February, group members were arrested for allegedly assaulting a young woman outside a Riyadh shopping mall, local media reported.
With the ascension to the throne of King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, who is known to have strong ties to both the conservative community and the intellectual elite, it was thought that an era of empowerment was to come for Hai’a’. There were also fears that royal decrees in support of women’s rights would not be followed through or would be reversed.
However, in late 2015, 20 women candidates captured municipal council seats in the first election to include female participation, despite calls for a boycott from the religious establishment. Saudi Arabia’s first co-educational university, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), continues operating without trouble.
The latest changes were not expected by the Saudi populace and are viewed by many as a historic event. “It’s great. Finally!” blogger Eman al-Nafjan told the Agence France-Presse news agency, adding that she hoped officers disobeying the rulings would be held accountable.
“I’m very confident because there are so many people who are for these changes,” she added.