In dog-walking, Saudi virtue police see vice

In Riyadh, theories that the practice can encourage flirting revives a ban on buying and selling cats and dogs.

By , Correspondent

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    Virtue or Vice? Maged Elhayek, a veterinarian, says the ban on selling dogs and cats is a bid to stop people from 'acting Westernized.'
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A complaint about the "phenomenon" of dog-walking recently landed on the desk of Prince Sattam bin Abdul Aziz.

This practice was "becoming more and more acceptable and ... being taken advantage of by some young men in a way that conflicts with the rules and regulations of Islam," according to the protest from Othman al-Othman, head of Riyadh's religious police.

The young men, it seems, were being young men. They were "using cats and dogs to make passes at women and pester families," Mr. Othman told Al Hayat newspaper.

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Prince Sattam, acting governor of Riyadh Province, responded by ordering city officials to begin enforcing a 1994 religious edict banning the sale of dogs and cats, because the prophet Muhammad had encouraged Muslims to refrain from trading in the animals, according to an officially circulated memo.

Although the ban does not prohibit walking your dog or owning a pet, Al Othman told Al Hayat that "if a man is caught with a pet, the pet will be immediately confiscated. And the man will be forced to sign a document pledging not to repeat the act."

For days after, the no-pet-in-public ban – consistent with the often heavy-handed efforts by the Saudi religious police to control the lives of ordinary people –was mocked in newspapers and blogs around the world.

Saudi-born veterinarian Maged Elhayek says he took a "panicky" call from a US Army vet asking if foreigners would still be allowed to take their pets out of the country.

Mr. Elhayek says that the religious edict goes beyond what the prophet Muhammad said. "First of all, he only discouraged people from selling dogs, he didn't prohibit it," said the vet. And there was no mention of cats in that advice.

The religious police "are trying to stop people from buying cats and dogs so they wouldn't act like a Westernized nation," says Elhayek. "I don't know what they're really after. You cannot stop people from being opened up to the world."

At the Life and Nature pet store, the ban was met mostly with derision.

"What kind of logic is this?" asks teenager Abdulaziz A. Al Bahassan, cradling his cat, "Dallah," in his arms. "What about little kids who like cats and dogs? They're not going to use them to flirt with girls, so why are they banning these people from buying?"

"I'm prettier than the dog, if I want to flirt with women, I'd just use myself!" says young Mohammed Al Anezi. "I wouldn't need the dog."

He adds that "there should be nothing wrong with buying a cat or dog. It should be normal."

Abdelaziz Al Yousef, who has a German shepherd named "Rocky," predicted that the ban would be "a big failure."

Upstairs in the store, university student Rabah Al Shuwaier, her face completely veiled in black except for her eyes, was visiting the vet with two of her six kittens: Snow white "Sugar" and light brown "Caramel."

"I know that having a pet at home and taking care of it is permissible under Islamic law," Ms. Shuwaier said. "But I'm not sure about the ruling on selling and buying cats and dogs. They wouldn't say it's wrong unless they had a reason to."

Salesmen at the pet shop said they'd received no official notification of the ban.

The Commission to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice, as the religious police are formally known, did not respond to e-mailed questions about its dog-walking concerns from the Monitor.

More than a week after Al Hayat newspaper disclosed the ban, no Saudi official had come forward to clarify that the written version does not include dog-walking, or to explain how people can now acquire dogs and cats.

The officials' absence is partly explained by the grand bargain that the ruling royal family has with the Saudi religious community: In exchange for the clerics' support, the royal family allows them a free hand in many areas, particularly ones deemed minor in the larger scheme of things.

Meanwhile, the ruling family retains its prerogative to implement changes in more important issues. King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, for example, has taken important initiatives in interfaith dialogue and the issue of women entering the workforce despite clerical opposition.

Arab culture has generally considered dogs unclean, and Saudi religious authorities have advised against having them as household pets.

But dogs are increasingly seen as attractive pets and Saudis, especially the well-off, are keeping household animals of all kinds, said veterinarian Elhayek, administrator of Riyadh's Advanced Pet Clinic.

Ten years ago, the majority of his clients were Western pet owners. "Now it's almost 50-50," he says, with Arabs accounting for half.

Elhayek notes that Islam's holy book, the Koran, has a story about a group of believers who slept in a cave for 300 years with their dog.

In addition, revered stories about the prophet Muhammad tell of him commending people who saved lives of dogs by quenching their thirst.

"Now don't come and tell me that dogs are a yucky creature," says Elhayek. "They're a beautiful creature and the more I know people, the more I love my dog."

Cats have always been popular pets among Arabs, who as children learn about the prophet Muhammad's companion "Abu Huraira," or "Father of the Kitten," so-called because he carried one around.

Elhayek says that his understanding is that the government's order contains no prohibition on walking dogs in public, which is rare anyway in the capital, which has few parks and green spaces.

"Everybody who lives in Riyadh ... should not be afraid of walking their dogs out in the streets, because nobody's going to do anything to them," Elhayek says. "It's not illegal, it's not against the law."

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