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Saudi dilemma: how to police the public amidst a modernisation drive

Prince Mohammed has cut back the political role of the ultra-conservative religious establishment while promoting hyper-nationalism in a historic reordering of the Saudi state. Saudi police saw 120 people arrested over a vague public indecency law, and 88 arrested over harassment charges at the widely advertised MDL concert.

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Saudi Arabia has arrested more than 200 people for violating “public decency” — including by wearing immodest clothing — and “harassment”, police said, in the first such crackdown since the ultra-conservative kingdom began easing social norms.

Some 120 men and women have been arrested over the past week for offending public morals, including wearing “inappropriate clothes”, Riyadh police said in a series of statements on Twitter since Tuesday. It added that unspecified penalties were imposed on the violators.

Another 88 people were arrested in various harassment cases, Saudi police have added in separate statements, after several women complained on social media that they were harassed at the MDL Beast music festival in Riyadh earlier this month.

The public decency guidelines, first approved by cabinet in April, are widely perceived to be vague and have sparked public concern that they would be open to interpretation

The electronic music festival, which drew tens of thousands of fans, was billed by organisers as the biggest ever to be hosted in the kingdom. Police did not offer any further details, including the duration of the detentions.

https://twitter.com/Heckhigh/status/1208646793174454277

This marked the first such mass crackdown since de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman began easing social restrictions in the ultra-conservative kingdom, lifting decades-long bans on cinemas and women drivers while allowing gender-mixed concerts and sporting extravaganzas.

The relaxed social norms have been welcomed by many Saudis, two-thirds of whom are under 30.

Read more: Saudi Arabia seeks to criminalise sexual harassment

But in September, Saudi Arabia said it would penalise violations of “public decency”, including wearing immodest clothing and public displays of affection, after the austere kingdom began issuing tourist visas for the first time.

Men and women must avoid “tight-fitting clothing” or clothes with “profane language or images”, read an instruction on an English language website launched by the tourism authority.

“Women should cover shoulders and knees in public,” it added.

The electronic music festival, which drew tens of thousands of fans, was billed by organisers as the biggest ever to be hosted in the kingdom

The public decency guidelines, first approved by cabinet in April, are widely perceived to be vague and have sparked public concern that they would be open to interpretation.

They have also stoked fears of a revival of morality policing.

Read more: Saudi detains nine Academics, Writers and Activists

Saudi Arabia’s religious police once elicited widespread fear, chasing men and women out of malls to pray and berating anyone seen mingling with the opposite sex.

But the bearded enforcers of public morality, whose powers have been clipped in recent years, are now largely out of sight.

Public indecency law 

In April 2019, amidst a modernization drive by Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, Saudi Cabinet approved a ‘public indecency’ law.

The law seeks to uphold Saudi “values and principles,” banning in public clothing deemed to “offend public tastes” — including men’s shorts — and graffiti that could be interpreted as “harmful,” according to local media.

Violators reportedly risk facing a fine of up to 5,000 riyals ($1,333).

The law, widely perceived to be vague, has sparked public concern that it would be open to interpretation, leading to arbitrary penalties and, more light-heartedly, prompted humorous banter on social media.

“This [law] is an effort to balance the pressure from conservative elements of society that accuse the [government] of allowing things to go ‘out of control,’” said Ali Shihabi, founder of the pro-Saudi think-tank Arabia Foundation. “Effecting social change is an art form — you want to push as fast as possible without provoking a counter reaction. Not easy!”

Prince Mohammed, who has amassed powers unseen by previous rulers, has cut back the political role of the ultra-conservative religious establishment while promoting hyper-nationalism in a historic reordering of the Saudi state.

Religious police 

The role of the Saudi Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV)  — 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.

GVS News Desk with additions from news agencies.