The Magazine

Valentine's Day in Saudi Arabia

Portents of change from the desert kingdom.

Mar 5, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 24 • By IRFAN AL-ALAWI and STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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Nevertheless, this year's anti-Valentine offensive by the mutawwa was less draconian than usual. It included a stipulation: Non-Muslims in the kingdom--as much as 20 percent of the population (up to 6 million people) because of the immense influx of Western technicians and mostly Christian guest workers from east Asia--would not be molested by the mutawwa if they celebrated the holiday behind closed doors, although Muslims were cautioned against joining in foreign Valentine's Day events. The mutawwa are notorious for bursting into the residences of foreigners to check whether they are consuming liquor, so this Valentine's Day concession to foreigners was more significant than outsiders might think. The privacy of one's home is, after all, foundational to civilized societies.

The next day, on February 13, the mutawwa forbade the sale of Valentine roses in the markets and malls. This seems especially perverse to Muslims, since roses have always been symbols of love, beauty, and inspiration in Islamic spirituality. The newspapers al-Jazeera and al-Watan (The Nation) stated that all red-colored items had been removed from shops.

Yet Saudi subjects report that the mutawwa harassment failed. Many ordinary Saudi Muslims favored their beloved with Valentine gifts, which were more popular than ever. The price of red roses shot up, and they were quickly sold out. What makes this significant is that it is one of several signs of waning mutawwa power.

On February 12, the same day the main warning against Valentines was issued, King Abdullah told foreign journalists that the issue of Saudi women driving cars--long banned, with the prohibition enforced by the mutawwa--is a social rather than a religious issue, to be determined as a matter of state policy instead of theology. If these words are followed up with action, and the matter of women driving is actually removed from clerical control, that will mark a turning point in the history of the kingdom. Indeed, only a day later, Abdullah announced that the King Abdullah Institute for Research and Consultative Studies, a policy think tank never connected to the Wahhabi clerics, will review the functioning of the mutawwa. Again, if this announcement proves to be the prelude to action, it can be seen as another incremental step toward normalization.

The most hopeful analysts see the Saudi monarch starting to remove the state from Wahhabism. Rumors have circulated for months that Abdullah wishes to outright abolish the mutawwa, a Wahhabi invention (with a parallel in the mullahs' Iran). In Jeddah, the cosmopolitan business center that, with the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, dominates Hejaz, the region stretching along the Red Sea that is the heart of the Islamic world, women now refuse to wear the face covering, or niqab, declaring that it was never a Hejazi custom. In a series of incidents since Abdullah assumed power, the women of Jeddah have harassed the mutawwa off the city's streets. It is said that Prince Nayef, the sinister Wahhabi minister of the interior who was the first prominent Saudi to blame the atrocities of September 11, 2001, on Israel, has threatened King Abdullah with removal if he attempts to curb the mutawwa. But King Abdullah is popular, and such a gambit by Prince Nayef would be extremely risky.

Aside from the crucial issue of the mutawwa--and intriguing but isolated developments like the publication in mid-January of a positive volume titled The Jewish Contribution to World Civilization by Saudi author Saad al-Bazaie--the most significant issue about which King Abdullah has adopted a new course involves the Sunni terror in neighboring Iraq. Genocidal hatred of Shias is an essential Wahhabi belief. It has been clear since the U.S.-led intervention in Iraq began that the majority of "foreign fighters" serving al Qaeda in Iraq are Saudis. Iraqi Sunnis are hesitant to kill themselves in terror operations, but Saudi fanatics take pride in this. When these murderous Sunni interlopers are terminated, their photographs and biographies typically appear in Saudi media. Al-Watan has stated that 2,000 Saudis have died in Iraq since 2003--two thirds the number of American soldiers slain there. In a recent case, on February 5, for instance, the Wahhabi periodical al-Sahat (The Hour) gloated over a Saudi subject, Hudhaiban al-Dosary, who had crossed the Saudi border to blow himself up in a massacre of dozens of Iraqis during the solemn Shia commemoration of Ashura. The atrocity committed by al-Dosary, alias Abu Mehjen, was but one in a series of Ashura horrors perpetrated by foreign Sunni extremists this year.