Rise and fall of the Saudi religious police

Rise and fall of the Saudi religious police
Saudi women are once again free from unreasonable restrictions, says Sheikh Ahmad bin Qasim Al-Ghamdi, left.
Updated 23 September 2019

Rise and fall of the Saudi religious police

Rise and fall of the Saudi religious police
  • Decision to limit police powers helps encourage moderation in the Kingdom
  • Unchecked power created climate of fear, leading cleric recalls

JEDDAH: The role of the Saudi Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV) — better known as the religious police — has always been to advise and guide society to become better Muslims. 

However, after the Kingdom adopted a hard line religiously and socially during the post-1979 Sahwa (Islamic Awakening) era, the religious police strayed from their original intent. Fueled by an extreme ideology and with powers unchecked, this organized group of pious men turned from friend to foe of society. In recent years, Saudi Arabia has implemented a series of reforms under Vision 2030, which aims to better the lives of its people and, according to its architect Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, bring society back to moderate Islam. 

Perhaps one of the least hyped but most significant reforms was the decision to strip the religious police of its unchecked power. This was an unprecedented, risky yet necessary move that the Saudi government had avoided for decades. 

The role of the CPVPV, which was established in 1940, has always been to serve as society’s spiritual guide. Back then, it — and society as a whole — happily saw religion and modernization coexist. 

Sheikh Ahmad bin Qasim Al-Ghamdi, a cleric and former director of the religious police in Makkah, recalls the harmony that existed before 1979.  “In those days, parents behaved in a pure and natural way. I don’t recall hearing anyone inciting hatred and calling for the exclusion of others who practice different religions, doctrines or culture,” he said. “In general, they were an example of tolerance, optimism and openness.”

School curricula promoted openness, coexistence and independent thinking. The culture of fanaticism, extremism, hate, death, exclusion of the other, and fear of scientific and civic development had not yet infiltrated the education system, said Al-Ghamdi.

“Our parents and grandparents simply expressed that Saudi spirit through true and sincere religiosity, untainted by political views or ethical exaggeration,” he added. “The culture of Saudi society prior to 1979 was moderately religious and into life.”

Al-Ghamdi said Saudi women expressed their best character back then. They had strong and confident personalities, free from unreasonable restrictions in their dress and behavior. 

But the spread of extremism led to a decline in their status and the disappearance of their role in Saudi society. Similarly, the creative arts, which had been flourishing, suffered from restrictions later on.

In 1976, the religious police started to expand and evolve when its branches in Hijazi and Najd merged into one body by Royal Decree 64, which appointed Sheikh Abdulaziz Al-Sheikh as its president. Four years later (and following the events of 1979), on Sept. 5, 1980, Royal Decree 37 was issued to establish a working system for the religious body. 

It introduced four new sanctions: The formation of the general presidency of the religious police; setting the basis and authority of its president; the appointment, promotion and discipline of members and staff; and its duties in towns and villages. “This development was considered a quantum leap administratively and legally for the religious police,” said Al-Ghamdi.

Extremists sought not only to make society’s old ways look like sinful, but to promote this obscurantist image abroad in an attempt to create a vast civilizational gap between Saudi Arabia and the civilized world, he added.

In 1979, Juhayman Al-Otaibi and his followers threatened the sanctity and safety of the Grand Mosque in Makkah by attacking its guests with explosives and guns. In the aftermath, Saudi Arabia saw the rise of the Sahwa movement. Abdulaziz Al-Khedr, author of the book “Saudi: A History of a Country and Community,” said media discretion was the only way to minimize the damage.

“The case was closed rapidly after their sentences were announced, and it wasn’t even an option to point to the incident anymore. Juhayman’s name was prohibited (from) mentioning in the papers,” wrote Al-Khedr, who captured the palpable change that took place in TV programs and songs between 1980 and 1991, which was felt even by children. 

Films were prohibited, music was played less, and female singers were banned from TV but not from radio. “There was a rise in extracurricular activities with a religious orientation,” Al-Khedr wrote.

During the 1980s, Saudi society shifted markedly due to the role played by the religious police. Al-Ghamdi said: “Some influenced Saudis joined terrorist groups and followed organizations that had political motives, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Qaeda, and later on Daesh.” He added that the CPVPV was not aligned with the realistic requirements of modern society.

Al-Khedr described the cause of the friction between society and the religious police in an op-ed for Makkah Newspaper on Sept. 13, 2014. “What’s problematic about their work is how they relate it to spaces that cover personal freedom in worship and conduct,” he wrote.

The CPVPV’s mission is meant to be that of advice and guidance based on kindness, far from friction with the public or obligating society with jurisprudentially controversial opinions, as well as uncorrected abuse that was sometimes carried out by some of its members, said Al-Ghamdi.

Although the religious police enjoyed the support of a large portion of society at one time, it was not like the danger it posed was not apparent to the Saudi leadership, intellectuals and concerned citizens. 

One of those most concerned with the CPVPV’s growing power was the late King Abdullah. His concerns proved correct when in 2002, a fire erupted in a girls’ school in Makkah, and members of the religious police were reportedly accused of hindering the rescue because the girls weren’t wearing abayas. 

The result was 15 dead schoolgirls, an international scandal, and a fuming and incredibly frustrated King Abdullah. But because he was only crown prince at the time, and due to the poor health of King Fahd, he was unable to do anything himself or mobilize the ailing king to move forward with what he saw as necessary reform of the CPVPV. 

Three years later, Abdullah became king. His approach was to try and replace the head of the religious police with a more moderate figure. Yet because of decades of bureaucracy and the nature of this body of overzealous men, moderate ideas did not travel far, and King Abdullah’s solution did not solve the problem. 

Members of the religious police continued to harass citizens and visitors, to the point where some died in car chases. 

They destroyed musical instruments, raided beauty salons, shaved heads, whipped people, burnt books, and continued being unchecked — until an unexpected decision came out on April 11, 2016. 

The Saudi Cabinet issued a royal decree that stripped the religious police of its privileges, banning its members from pursuing, questioning, asking for identification, arresting and detaining anyone suspected of a crime. They are now obliged to report back to the police and security forces if need be.

It seems as if Saudi Arabia has now regained contact with its pre-1979 self. “Major decisions are being made by the conscious political leadership today, such as allowing women to drive, reforming education, destroying the forces of extremism and violence, allowing Saudi art to return to its natural place, and starting huge economic projects such as NEOM, the Red Sea Project and others, indicating how life in Saudi Arabia is regaining its true spirit,” said Al-Ghamdi.

Today’s Saudi society is living in its best time, having recovered its social values, optimism and hope for the future. It is combating extremism adopted by Iran, Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Saudi Arabia has also shifted its attitude toward women, allowing them into stadiums, giving them the right to obtain passports and travel without a male guardian’s consent, and promoting them to leadership positions.

The religious police’s role has become more lenient. Al-Ghamdi said the changes have effectively corrected the imbalance of many of its procedures, restoring its work balance and semi-enabling it to return to be a source of moderation.

“The new CPVPV has managed to defuse the strife in the relationship between its past self and society,” he added.

“It has prevented the distortion and weak confidence that the people had in the procedures that were followed in the past,” he said. 

Those procedures “damaged the reputation of the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice as a ritual, and the reputation of the Kingdom as a state that applies the provisions of Islam.”

 

 


Soul sisters: Meet the Saudi women blazing a musical trail

Soul sisters: Meet the Saudi women blazing a musical trail
Former reporter and jazz and blues singer, Loulwa Al-Sharif has been singing for seven years. The larger-than-life singer has been the talk of the town for years, delivering high and low notes with passion. (Supplied)
Updated 52 min 3 sec ago

Soul sisters: Meet the Saudi women blazing a musical trail

Soul sisters: Meet the Saudi women blazing a musical trail
  • Social reforms open doors for female musicians in traditional male field

JEDDAH: Saudi female musicians and performers are hitting the high notes and creating crowd-pleasing beats for Saudi fans.

Jazz and blues, rock, rap and many other genres have been explored by Saudis, but now more Saudi women are making their way to the performance stage, thanks to social reforms that mean career choices that once were taboo are now supported by many.
Saudi electronic music producer and DJ Nouf Sufyani, known as Cosmicat, told Arab News that has been obsessed with music since childhood.
“My love for music was overwhelming and kept leading me back until I started making my own,” the 27-year-old said.
In 2017, Sufyani began gaining attention in the male-dominated field because of her unique style.
She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in dental medicine and surgery, and worked as a dentist for a while before pursuing her music career.
“It’s a struggle proving myself in a male-dominated industry, and there is also the fear of being a social outcast for what I do since it’s not a traditional job and the style of music I play is not really mainstream,” said Sufyani.
Music is “the motivation that keeps me going every day — it’s a form of art that I keep rediscovering over and over.”
Sufyani taught herself to DJ. “I do electronic music, I love to use my voice and some Arabic poetry or spoken word or even a capella. I make music that can be enjoyed on the dance floor; my flavor is more underground and very personal.”

Saudi electronic music producer and DJ Nouf Sufyani, known as Cosmicat, told Arab News that has been obsessed with music since childhood.

Her music is available on major platforms such as Apple Music, Spotify, Anghami, Deezer and Soundcloud, and is also played on the flight entertainment system of Saudi Airlines.
Lamya Nasser, a 33-year-old facility and travel management officer, developed an interest in rock and metal at the age of nine, and began recording her music in 2008, long before the social reforms, as part of the first Saudi female rock band the Accolade.
“What got me started is my love and passion for rock music, how much I can relate to a lot of its messages and how it shaped my character along the way,” she told Arab News.

HIGHLIGHT

Jazz and blues, rock, rap and many other genres have been explored by Saudis, but now more Saudi women are making their way to the performance stage, thanks to social reforms that mean career choices that once were taboo are now supported by many.

“I started my journey with the Accolade back when I was 21 and a student at King Abdul Aziz University. I got to know a very talented guitar player named Dina and along with her sister we formed the band.”
In that year, the band visited Khaled Abdulmanan, a music producer in Jeddah at Red Sand Production. They have recorded three songs: “Pinocchio” (2008), “Destiny” (2009) and her favorite, “This is not me” (2010).
After the women graduated, they went their separate ways. “Sadly, we weren’t able to gather for rehearsals like we used to, and each one of us started her own career.”
In 2018, Nasser went solo and continues to share her performances on Instagram @Lamya.K.Nasser. She recently joined a new recording studio under the name of Wall of Sound.

Lamya Nasser, a 33-year-old facility and travel management officer, developed an interest in rock and metal at the age of nine, and began recording her music in 2008.

“Music can be the fuel to our soul and regenerate our energy. We can translate our pain and express ourselves through music,” she said.
Nasser said that the song “Pinocchio” had more than 19,000 listens on Soundcloud. “It made me truly happy and proud. Even now I still messages on my Instagram account from time to time from beautiful souls sharing their admiration for Accolade’s music,” she said.
Former reporter and jazz and blues singer, 33-year-old Loulwa Al-Sharif (@loulwa_music) has been singing for seven years. The larger-than-life singer has been the talk of the town for years, delivering high and low notes with passion.

Music is the motivation that keeps me going every day — it’s a form of art that I keep rediscovering over and over.
Cosmicat

“I tried working in different fields since I was 17, and decided to leave journalism three years ago to work on what I’m passionate about,” Al-Sharif told Arab News.
“I was one of very few women performing six years ago. It was a little difficult. There were talented females, but no one was singing live in front of an audience. I was maybe the first or second,” she said. “It was hard, but a lot of people were supporting me.” She described music as raw emotion.
“Blues is real emotion and jazz is unpredictable, I love how unpredictable it is from the sound of the piano — there are no rules, and the lyrics from blues music are so real.”
Al-Sharif hopes to educate the new generation on jazz and blues through her performances.
“I chose to sing it back then because not many from the new generation listen to jazz and blues, so I really wanted to bring it back and for people to enjoy it.”


Saudi Arabia reassures priority groups on COVID-19 vaccines

Saudi Arabia reassures priority groups on COVID-19 vaccines
Saudi Arabia reassures priority groups on COVID-19 vaccines. (REUTERS)
Updated 5 min 8 sec ago

Saudi Arabia reassures priority groups on COVID-19 vaccines

Saudi Arabia reassures priority groups on COVID-19 vaccines
  • Saudi health ministry reassured those over 60 and priority groups that they will continue to receive the second vaccine doses

JEDDAH: Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Health said that second doses of the COVID-19 vaccine will be rescheduled for the general public according to the availability of supplies.

The MOH reassured those over 60 and priority groups that they will continue to receive the second vaccine doses.

On Saturday, the MOH announced 1,153 new cases of COVID-19, raising the total number of cases to 473,112, and 1,145 recoveries, bringing the total to 454,404. The death tally is now 7,663, with 13 new COVID-19 associated deaths reported in the past 24 hours.

The Kingdom’s recovery rate is holding steady at 96 percent.

Makkah reported 335 cases, Riyadh 266, the Eastern Province 148 and Asir 119. Jouf reported only 4 cases.

The number of active cases continues to rise despite the high recovery rate, and stands at 11,045. No new cases were admitted to intensive care, which leaves 1,496 still in critical care.

77,831 new PCR tests have been conducted in the past 24 hours and more than 16.5 million doses of the vaccine administered so far.


Endangered goat species released in Saudi Arabia’s Baljurashi park

Endangered goat species released in Saudi Arabia’s Baljurashi park
Endangered goat species released in Saudi Arabia’s National Park of Baljurashi. (SPA)
Updated 12 min 7 sec ago

Endangered goat species released in Saudi Arabia’s Baljurashi park

Endangered goat species released in Saudi Arabia’s Baljurashi park
  • The park is one of the largest in Saudi Arabia and features rugged mountain terrain, which serves as an ideal habitat for the goat species

BAHA: Twenty endangered mountain goats have been released back into the wild in Saudi Arabia’s National Park of Baljurashi, the first rehabilitation project of its kind in Baha.

It comes as part of efforts by The National Center for Wildlife Development to protect the Kingdom’s endangered animal species.

At a ceremony held for the release, Baha Gov. Prince Hussam bin Saud bin Abdul Aziz stressed the importance of preserving and restoring wildlife in the region to protect the environment and nature, adding that the efforts were part of the center’s coordination with a branch of the Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture and the National Center for the Development of Vegetation Cover and Combating Desertification, and were in line with Vision 2030.

He also stressed the importance of achieving ecological balance and praised the efforts of the ministry in achieving sustainable development and enriching biodiversity in the Kingdom.

The park is one of the largest in the Kingdom and features rugged mountain terrain, which serves as an ideal habitat for the goat species.

The release is part of the Saudi repatriation program carried out by the National Center for Wildlife Development to restore endangered species in their natural habitats, make the park more attractive for visitors, activate societal partnerships and restore the balance of natural environments.

Tourists and visitors in Baha will be able to safely watch the rare animals from afar and capture photos.

The release event was attended by undersecretary of the region’s principality, Abdul Moneim bin Yassin Al​-Shehri; CEO of the National Center for Wildlife Development, Dr. Mohammed Qurban; and director of the ministry’s branch in the region, Fahd Al-Zahrani.

 


5.6 million arrested for residency, labor, border violations across Saudi Arabia

5.6 million arrested for residency, labor, border violations across Saudi Arabia
More than 5.6 million violators arrested in Saudi Arabia. (SPA)
Updated 18 min 20 sec ago

5.6 million arrested for residency, labor, border violations across Saudi Arabia

5.6 million arrested for residency, labor, border violations across Saudi Arabia
  • The report said that 116,908 people were arrested while trying to cross the border into Saudi Arabia

RIYADH: More than 5.6 million violators of residency, work and border security systems have been arrested in the Kingdom, according to an official report.

Since the campaign began on Nov. 15, 2017 — and up to June 16, 2021 — there have been 5,615,884 offenders, including 4,304,206 for violating residency regulations, 802,125 for labor violations and 509,553 for border violations.

The report said that 116,908 people were arrested while trying to cross the border into the Kingdom: 43 percent were Yemeni citizens, 54 percent were Ethiopians and 3 percent were from other nationalities.

In addition, 9,508 people were arrested for trying to cross into neighboring countries, and 8,222 were arrested for involvement in transporting and harboring violators.

Some 2,766 Saudis were arrested for harboring violators against local laws, of whom five were being detained pending the completion of procedures.

The total number of violators being subjected to procedures was 53,916, including 49,954 men and 3,962 women.

Immediate penalties were imposed against 714,208 offenders, 901,700 were transferred to their respective diplomatic missions to obtain travel documents, 1,047,340 were transferred to complete their travel reservations, and 1,553,667 were deported.

 


Saudi customs seize $24 million illegal cash since early 2020

Saudi customs seize $24 million illegal cash since early 2020
A Saudi money exchanger wears gloves as he counts Saudi riyal currency at a currency exchange shop in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (REUTERS file photo)
Updated 27 min 35 sec ago

Saudi customs seize $24 million illegal cash since early 2020

Saudi customs seize $24 million illegal cash since early 2020
  • Travelers arriving or departing from the Kingdom who are carrying coins, jewelry or any precious metals worth SR60,000 or more, or its equivalent in foreign currencies, must declare

JEDDAH: Saudi Arabia’s Zakat, Tax and Customs Authority (GAZT) prevented the smuggling of more than 290 kilograms of gold jewelry and almost SR90 million ($24 million) in cash from crossing out of the Kingdom over the span of 18 months since the beginning of 2020.
As part of efforts to combat smuggling through its facilities in Saudi Arabia, GAZT officers were able to foil an attempt on Friday to smuggle SR2.76 million in cash hidden inside a truck leaving through the Al-Batha Border Port.
GAZT officials said that the money was “stashed in the cavity of the rear axles of the truck,” adding that legal measures were taken against the smuggler.
In another smuggling operation foiled on May 27, inspectors were alerted to a suspicious female passenger arriving at Jeddah’s King Abdul Aziz International Airport. She was found to have ingested 60 capsules, or 683.5 grams of cocaine. Similarly, a male passenger had ingested 80 capsules, containing 918.5 grams of cocaine.

FASTFACT

Travelers arriving or departing from the Kingdom who are carrying coins, jewelry or any precious metals worth SR60,000 or more, or its equivalent in foreign currencies, must declare the items electronically through the GAZT application or website.

Travelers arriving or departing from the Kingdom who are carrying coins, jewelry or any precious metals worth SR60,000 or more, or its equivalent in foreign currencies, must declare the items electronically through the GAZT application or website by filling out the designated form electronically, and submitting the reference number to customs authorities upon departure or arrival.
GAZT said that in the event of a false or nondeclaration, a fine of 25 percent of the value of the seized items will be imposed.
If a violation is repeated, a fine of 50 percent of the value of the seized items will be handed down. This is applicable only if there is no suspicion of the incident being linked to a predicate crime or money laundering crime, but should there be any suspicion, the entire amount shall be withheld and the violator shall be referred to The Kingdom’s Public Prosecution.