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.”

 

 


Saudi-led Arab coalition intercepts Houthi drone launched towards Khamis Mushait

Saudi-led Arab coalition intercepts Houthi drone launched towards Khamis Mushait
Updated 09 March 2021

Saudi-led Arab coalition intercepts Houthi drone launched towards Khamis Mushait

Saudi-led Arab coalition intercepts Houthi drone launched towards Khamis Mushait

The Saudi-led Arab coalition said it intercepted a Houthi drone headed toward Khamis Mushait in the southern region in Saudi Arabia, Saudi state channel Al-Ekhbariya reported on Tuesday.

The coalition said that “the Houthi militia commits grave mistakes and horrific violations of international humanitarian law,” adding that it is “dealing with these violation in accordance with international humanitarian law.
Meanwhile, the Houthis faced international condemnation on Monday after attacking Saudi oil facilities.

The US said the Houthis needed to show seriousness about US-backed peace efforts.
“We condemn the egregious Houthi drone and missile attack against Saudi Aramco facilities,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters.


8 Saudi mosques close after 10 confirmed cases of COVID-19

8 Saudi mosques close after 10 confirmed cases of COVID-19
Updated 09 March 2021

8 Saudi mosques close after 10 confirmed cases of COVID-19

8 Saudi mosques close after 10 confirmed cases of COVID-19
  • 236 mosques have closed temporarily in last 29 days
  • 224 of them have so far reopened after sterilization

RIYADH: Saudi authorities temporarily closed eight mosques in three regions of Saudi Arabia on Monday, after 10 worshipers tested positive for COVID-19.
The Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Dawah and Guidance said that 236 mosques have been closed in the past 29 days. Of those, 224 reopened after they were sterilized and steps were taken to ensure public safety.
Six of the mosques closed on Monday are in Riyadh, one is in Madinah and one in Tabuk, the ministry said. It added that six previously closed mosques have reopened in Makkah, Qassim and the Eastern Province after precautionary sterilization and maintenance.
The ministry called on worshipers and mosque officials to abide by all precautionary measures and report any violations or problems applying health protocols.


Saudi Arabia beats Silicon Valley on women’s tech roles, ministry claims

Saudi Arabia beats Silicon Valley on women’s tech roles, ministry claims
Participants including Saudi women attend a hackathon in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on August 1, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 09 March 2021

Saudi Arabia beats Silicon Valley on women’s tech roles, ministry claims

Saudi Arabia beats Silicon Valley on women’s tech roles, ministry claims
  • Saudi Arabia's investment in cybersecurity has led to its recognition as a pioneer, rated number one regionally and 13 internationally by the International Telecommunication Union

JEDDAH: Saudi women’s participation rate in the communications and IT sector rose from 11 percent in 2017 to 24 percent in 2021, an official at the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology (MCIT) said.
“Due to several initiatives, that percentage has surpassed that of Silicon Valley, which is currently at 17 percent,” Bandar Al-Duwais, MCIT’s director of future recruitments, said during the Women Enablement Summit.
After a recent surge in spending on women’s training, Saudi women currently make up 40 percent of digital entrepreneurs, he added.
Dr. Hala Al-Tuwaijri, head of G20 Women’s Empowerment team, said that during the Kingdom’s presidency, Saudi Arabia had three central focuses: Human empowerment, the earth’s sustainability and implementing new horizons.
“Women’s empowerment was at the core of all of them,” she said.
The Kingdom’s investment in cybersecurity has led to its recognition as a pioneer, rated number one regionally and 13 internationally by the International Telecommunication Union.

FASTFACT

• Saudi women’s participation rate in the IT sector rose from 11 percent in 2017 to 24 percent in 2021.

Basmah Al-Jedai, general manager of the Center of Strategic Studies at the National Cybersecurity Authority, said that women took greater advantage of the authority’s training programs than men did.
The National Academy for Cybersecurity’s scholarship program, which offered students scholarships to esteemed institutes globally, has attracted 67 percent of female applicants.
Another initiative, Cyber Pro, which focuses on building a cybersecurity workforce in the Kingdom, has seen 62 percent of female participants.
Based on the Kingdom’s goal of increasing women’s participation in the labor market and the ministry’s strategy, which gives priority to enhancing the role of women in the sector, MCIT developed an integrated program to empower women in the communications and information technology sector.


Saudi Arabia launches women’s accountancy program

Saudi Arabia launches women’s accountancy program
Dr. Majid bin Abdullah Al-Qasabi. (SPA)
Updated 09 March 2021

Saudi Arabia launches women’s accountancy program

Saudi Arabia launches women’s accountancy program
  • Al-Qasabi says initiative will help achieve Vision 2030 goals

RIYADH: A program to encourage Saudi women to join the accounting profession was launched on Monday by Saudi Commerce Minister Dr. Majid bin Abdullah Al-Qasabi.

The program is organized by the Saudi Organization for Certified Public Accountants (SOCPA).
Minister of Human Resources and Social Development Ahmed Al-Rajhi was also present at the launch event.
Describing the accounting profession as the “backbone of any company,” Al-Qasabi said the industry is “instrumental” in the national economy.
The program includes training, qualification, entrepreneurship and employment streams. It is part of Saudi government efforts to empower women and increase their participation in the national economy.
“Women today have strong will, determination and ambition to succeed in all fields, especially accounting, which requires precision, analysis and vitality. Saudi women possess all these qualities,” Al-Qasabi said.
“The program will enhance women’s role in improving the profession and help achieve the goals of Vision 2030.”
The minister said that there are 140 SOCPA-certified female accountants in the Kingdom. He added that SOCPA has cooperated with Saudi universities to help more than 10,000 accounting students benefit from programs and initiatives.
SOCPA Secretary-General Dr. Ahmed Al-Maghamis told Arab News that the organization will sign multiple agreements with the private sector to help promote accounting as a profession for Saudis.
He said that SOCPA aims to fill 20,000 auditing and accounting jobs by 2022.
The new women’s accounting program also doubles up as an initiative to increase the number of Saudi accountants and enable economic sectors to receive better access accounting and auditing services, he added.

HIGHLIGHTS

• The program includes training, qualification, entrepreneurship and employment streams.

• It is organized by the Saudi Organization for Certified Public Accountants.

“The program aims to develop the skills of Saudi women and allow them to participate in SOCPA council and committees,” Al-Maghamis said.
SOCPA is also working to establish a center to support small and medium enterprises. The women’s program includes several initiatives, such as a volunteer club and accounting leaderships, the empowerment platform and the women’s council, he said.
Dr. Ghuraibah Al-Twaiher, chairperson of the Future Women Society, said that promoting women and helping them achieve professional success is necessary for future economic growth.
“Vision 2030 recognizes the key role of women in the development process and calls for greater participation of women to build a vital society,” she said.
In line with the Future Women Society’s mission to enhance women’s integrated economic value locally and internationally, the society recently signed an agreement with the Saudi Financials Association (SFA), Al-Twaiher said.
“The society aims to enable, develop and empower women’s career and professional skills. The SFA increases public awareness of the financial and accounting industries and also contributes to the development of a national cadre that is specialized in finance and accounting,” she added.
Al-Twaiher said the memorandum of understanding with the SFA includes joint cooperation in organizing and implementing awareness campaigns..
As part of this, the two organizations will design training programs for women interested in the fields of accounting and finance.
Razan Al-Sehaibani, a certified accountant, said that women are naturally suited to accounting. She added that she chose the profession because she had the capabilities to be an active member in society and contribute to building the national economy.
She praised the future of the accounting industry as “promising,” adding that the addition of more women accountants will benefit the field.


Saudi Arabia approves incentives for Hajj and Umrah businesses

Saudi Arabia approves incentives for Hajj and Umrah businesses
Updated 09 March 2021

Saudi Arabia approves incentives for Hajj and Umrah businesses

Saudi Arabia approves incentives for Hajj and Umrah businesses
  • Incentives intended to mitigate the financial and economic repercussions of COVID-19

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s King Salman approved a number of incentive initiatives for establishments operating in the Hajj and Umrah sectors, Saudi Press Agency (SPA) reported on Monday.
The move comes as part of the king’s keenness to mitigate the financial and economic repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic on individuals, private sector businesses and investors.
“These initiatives come as an extension of the Kingdom’s efforts to confront the financial and economic impacts on the sectors operating in the Hajj and Umrah field and the economic activities most affected by the repercussions of the pandemic,” a statement on SPA said.
The initiatives include:
1. Accommodation facilities would be exempt of annual fees for licenses for municipal commercial activities for one year in Makkah and Madinah.
2. Hajj and Umrah sector establishments will be exempt from paying the fee for employed expats for six months.
3. Licenses for accommodation facilities from the Ministry of Tourism may be renewed free of charge for one year in Makkah and Madinah, which can be extended.
4. Collection of residency renewal fees for expatriates working in activities related to the Hajj and Umrah sector will be postponed for six months, and the amounts are to be paid in installments over a period of one year.
5. The validity of licenses (application forms) for buses operating in facilities that transport pilgrims would be extended without charge for one year.
6. Collection of customs duties for new buses for this year’s Hajj season will be postponed for three months, and to be paid in installments over a period of four months starting from the due date.
The Saudi government has launched more than 150 initiatives, the allocations of which exceeded SR180 billion ($47.9 billion), with the aim of confronting the repercussions of pandemic and mitigating its effects on individuals, the private sector and investors.