In Saudi Arabia, the frustration of former morality police

‘Everything I was supposed to ban is now allowed, so I quit’: In Saudi Arabia, former members of the once feared morality police like Faisal confess their bitterness as the kingdom eases social restrictions, especially for women.

Once responsible for enforcing strict application of Islamic law, the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, called Moutawa, was sidelined in 2016 in this country which has been trying for several years to undo of its austere image.

Moutawa has been “deprived of all its prerogatives” and “no longer has a clear role at all”, Fayçal, a 37-year-old Saudi in dark traditional dress, told AFP, using a false first name to preserve his identity.

Behavior deemed immoral, drug trafficking or even alcohol smuggling – still prohibited in Saudi Arabia –, the religious police were on all fronts, terrifying the population.

For decades, its agents have cracked down in particular on women who do not properly wear the abaya, a loose black dress covering the body, or to flush out young people who do not respect strict segregation between the sexes.

Since the appointment of Mohammed bin Salman as crown prince in 2017 and his growing influence in power, the rules on the abaya have been relaxed, the mix has become commonplace and businesses are no longer forced to close. at prayer times.

“For form”

“Before, we only talked about the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue. Today we only talk about the General Authority for Entertainment”, ironically Faisal, in reference to a public institution created in 2016 and which organizes regular festivals and concerts of pop or electro music.

Former Moutawa agent, Turki, whose first name has also been changed, confirms that the institution for which he worked for ten years “only exists for form”.

“We no longer have the right to intervene, nor to change the behaviors that we considered inappropriate”, he regrets, assuring that many employees remain “only for the salary”.

Smoking a cigarette with a colleague in the center of the capital Riyadh, Lama is hardly moved by the fate reserved for the former Moutawa agents, who terrorized her in the past.

“A few years ago, you would never have thought of smoking in the street,” says Lama, wearing an open abaya revealing his clothes. “They would have hit us with their truncheons,” she laughs.

Having become invisible, most of the agents no longer have direct contact with the population, and spend their days in the office, developing awareness campaigns on good morals or sanitary measures.

Moutawa is now “isolated”, said a Saudi official who requested anonymity, reporting “a significant drop in the number of its employees”.

“Saudi Identity”

The Moutawa now claims to want to reform, in a very young country where more than half of the population is under 35 years old.

In an October interview on a local TV channel, its leader Abdelrahmane al-Sanad admitted to “abuse” by some agents who carried out security duties without any “experience or qualification”. He even assured that the commission would recruit women.

For the Saudi writer Saud al-Katib, the isolation and limitation of the powers of the Moutawa constitute a “radical change”.

But the authorities cannot yet afford to get rid of it completely, according to the specialist in the Gulf countries, Stéphane Lacroix.

“It refers to a certain Saudi identity to which many conservative Saudis are attached”, underlines the professor at Sciences-Po Paris who predicts in the future “a reorientation (…) of his functions”.

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