In the seven years since King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz assumed the throne of Saudi Arabia, the absolute monarch, whose reformist aspirations are widely believed to be sincere, has attempted to curb some of the outrageous human rights violations for which the desert kingdom is known. Many of these have involved the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV), the ubiquitous “moral guardians” that patrolled Saudi Arabian public space and occasionally raided private homes. But change has been obstructed by members of the royal family, state officials, and clerics representing the ultra-fundamentalist Wahhabi sect that is the official Islamic interpretation in the country and dominates it in a marriage-based alliance with the Al-Saud family.
At the beginning of October, Saudi Arabia announced reforms in the activities of the CPVPV that could mark a turn in the evolution of Saudi Arabia toward normality as a society.
Westerners call the CPVPV “the religious police,” although they have lacked law-enforcement training or other professional characteristics of public-order bodies. Saudi subjects and foreign Muslims who visit Saudi Arabia refer to them as the “hai’a” (commission), or the “mutawiyin”—the latter meaning “the pious,” “the devotees,” or “the volunteers” but with a strong implication of vigilantism. Dressed in white robes and red-checkered headscarves, they remain feared and hated by the Saudi populace.
In January 2012, King Abdullah appointed Abdul Latif Abdul Aziz Al-Sheikh as the new head of the mutawiyin, replacing a figure with a reformist reputation, Abdul Aziz Al-Humain. Paradoxically, Abdul Latif Al-Sheikh is a lineal descendant of Muhammad Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab, founder of the Wahhabi movement. But Al-Sheikh is credited with more advanced attitudes, especially on the status of women. Al-Sheikh has pointed out that Wahhabi-style strict separation of unrelated men and women, and a bar on women working in contact with men, contradict traditional Islamic law. In addition, among his first executive actions was to dismiss volunteers from the mutawiyin. In April 2012, he warned that members of the mutawiyin found to be harassing people would be punished, and castigated CPVPV personnel considered overzealous.
Then came an incident in May known in Saudi Arabia as the case of “the nail polish woman.” An unknown young female used her celphone camera to film a confrontation with three members of the mutawiyin who tried to get her to leave a shopping mall, reportedly because she was wearing nail polish, lipstick, and a small portion of her hair was visible under her veil (hijab). Her video of the dispute, in which she forced the three mutawiyin to stop bothering her, and regular uniformed police refused to assist the mutawiyin, was posted on YouTube and went viral. In the video, the unidentified woman threatened to report the mutawiyin to Al-Sheikh.
One defiant woman and a YouTube video seem to have encouraged a faster pace in reform of the mutawiyin. When the “nail polish woman” episode occurred, Abdul Latif Al-Sheikh criticized the member of the mutawiyin leading the trio at the mall. In June, the popular blog Saudi Jeans described Al-Sheikh weeping as he told his staff about a meeting with King Abdullah in which the ruler asked him to prevent the mutawiyin from acting violently against Saudi subjects. Al-Sheikh also commented on the altercation involving the “nail polish woman,” “The world is making airplanes and we are telling a woman to leave the mall because she is wearing nail polish.”
At the beginning of October, Al-Sheikh announced that the powers of the mutawiyin would be drastically restricted. They will be barred from making arrests, conducting interrogations, or carrying out searches without a warrant from the local governor. They will no longer stand at the entrances of shopping malls to keep women out who do not adhere to the Wahhabi dress code or who are not accompanied by “approved” men—husbands, siblings, or parents.
Until recently totaling 3,500 paid members, along with their numerous (now excluded) volunteers, the mutawiyin have been a central factor in Saudi Arabian life since their creation by King Abd Al-Aziz Ibn Saud (1876-1953) after the establishment of Saudi dominion over Mecca and Medina in the mid-1920s. They are best remembered and most criticized for an atrocious incident in 2002, when a fire broke out at a girls’ school in Mecca. Fourteen girls died as they were pushed back into the flames by the mutawiyin, under the pretext that in fleeing the blaze the students failed to cover themselves with sufficient modesty. The mutawiyin even prevented firemen from rescuing the girls and kept the gates of the school locked—a common practice supposed to avoid immoral gender mixing.
The Saudi mutawiyin have generally made up their own rules. Their most infamous habits of interference with ordinary Saudis (as well as with foreign visitors) included demanding proof that mixed-gender couples were married or otherwise linked by family or blood ties, and preventing women from driving on the main roads. They do not monitor rural areas where women often operate cars and trucks, or special compounds where women drive, like that of the Saudi ARAMCO energy complex in Dammam and the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), an ambitious, modern campus opened near Mecca in 2009. Wahhabi clerics and the mutawiyin oppose women driving on the argument that it encourages sexual promiscuity and prostitution. Yet thousands of Saudi women own cars and are forced to employ drivers. Women demanding the right to drive openly include Manal Al-Sharif, creator of an organization, Saudi Women to Drive, and Najla Hariri, who took the initiative last year of driving at will around the more cosmopolitan port and commercial city of Jedda.
But the mutawiyin have busied themselves with other matters aside from gender mixing and women driving. They enforced mosque attendance at prayer times, and punished Muslims engaged in so-called “idolatrous” practices of which Wahhabis disapprove. The latter include praying in the direction of Muhammad’s sarcophagus in his mausoleum in Medina, where many foreign Muslims go for prayer during hajj pilgrimages.
The situation began to change slowly in 2005, when then-crown prince Abdullah, who already had a reputation for reformist aspirations and resentment of Wahhabi excesses, assumed the throne after the death of the enfeebled King Fahd, his half-brother. Once he gained power, King Abdullah sought to impose limits on the mutawiyin. In 2006, they were officially barred from conducting interrogations. But the morals patrols, although reporting to the king, pushed back, with support from the succeeding crown prince Nayef Bin Abd Al-Aziz, a hardline Wahhabi, who died in mid-June 2012. In 2007, with Abdullah in power and Nayef as interior minister, the mutawiyin accumulated a series of new brutalities. These included the unpunished murders of Salman Al-Huraisi, who was beaten to death in his house for suspected possession of alcohol, and of Ahmed Al-Bulawi, who was caught riding without a chaperone in the car of a Moroccan woman—for whom he worked as a driver. In both cases, the families of the victims took the mutawiyin to court, and in both instances (as in others) charges against the mutawiyin were postponed indefinitely or dropped.
The year 2007 additionally saw the detention and beating of 18 Iraqi Shia hajj pilgrims, holding U.S. and British passports, for praying according to the Shia ritual, which differs in slight details from the forms of Sunni Muslim prayer. As the mutawiyin and their responsibilities became a field for confrontation between reformers and fanatics, King Abdullah achieved a minor victory by removing the right of the morals patrols to carry thin leather-covered sticks with which to beat alleged offenders, including women who allowed the all-covering black cloak known as the abaya to slip enough to reveal a a small area of their ankles.
Saudi sources warn that the hard-core Wahhabis will continue to fight King Abdullah’s reforms, as well as the measures introduced by Abdul Latif Al-Sheikh.