You may have heard about the case last month of three young men from the United Arab Emirates deported from Saudi Arabia for being “too handsome.”
The kingdom’s religious police, the Commission to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice, made that call.
Known to most Saudis simply as the Hai’a, or “the commission”, its employees, called “Hai’a men,” patrol Saudi streets, shopping malls, and other public spaces in their short white robes, untrimmed beards, and traditional Saudi headdresses to ensure that businesses close five times a day during prayer time, that women do not drive or mingle with unrelated men, and to enforce a host of other religious edicts that characterize Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi Islam.
As 89-year-old Saudi King Abdullah celebrates his eighth year on the throne (according to the Islamic calendar), one of his most challenging tasks is to reform and modernize the Hai’a.
Like other countries in the region, Saudi Arabia’s bulging youth population is pounding at the gates, concerned about jobs, education, and housing. Two-thirds of the kingdom’s subjects are under 29, and they are more willing to challenge authority than the generations before them. In recent years, there have been an increasing number of confrontations between Hai’a men and Saudi youth. A number of physical assaults and fatalities attributed to Hai’a men, widely publicized on Twitter and Facebook, have inflamed public opinion.
Shortly after Arab Spring revolutions overthrew several neighboring governments, King Abdullah decided that, along with a $130 billion stimulus package, he would appoint a new head to reform the Hai’a and improve its public image.
He chose Sheikh Abdul Latif bin Abdel Aziz Al al-Sheikh, a direct descendant of the 18th century theologian who founded Wahhabi Islam and established its alliance with the House of Saud.
Sheikh Abdul Latif was an unusual choice. Though other members of the Al al-Sheikh family occupy many of the kingdom’s top religious posts, he is considered to be a liberal. He has been active in the campaign to end child marriages. His wife works in the health ministry, his sister is dean of the women's section at Riyadh’s King Saud University and his daughter goes to university, unusual roles for female Wahhabi aristocrats.
Relative Sheikh Abdel Aziz ibn Abdullah Al al-Sheikh, the kingdom’s grand mufti and highest religious authority, is more typical. He has stated that girls are ready to marry by age 10, and that all churches on the Arabian peninsula should be destroyed.
Sheikh Abdul Latif holds the rank of cabinet minister and reports directly to the king. His agency employs more than 4,000 “field officers” and is said to have another 10,000 administrative personnel. His 2013 budget is $390 million, an increase of $35 million from 2012. The task of bringing change to the police force is likely to be formidable: His reform-minded predecessor lasted less than three years.
Since taking office, Sheikh Abdul Latif has identified five areas the religious police should focus on: preserving Islam, preventing blackmail, combating sorcery, fighting human trafficking, and ensuring that no one disobeys the country’s rulers.
One of his first moves was to announce that community volunteers could no longer join Hai’a men on their rounds. Volunteers used to join Hai'a officials as they pursued, chastised, and interrogated miscreants, considering it a religious duty.
He has also encouraged his stern and sometimes menacing field officers to “approach people with a smile.” Hai’a men may no longer use their private e-mails, cellphones, or social media accounts to receive and act on anonymous tips. He also created a “Human Rights Division” within the police force to respond to complaints, with a link on the Hai’a website to an online incident form. The link does not appear to work.
He affirmed that one of the police force's most important functions remains rooting out sorcerers. A white phone on the Hai’a homepage links to 41 hotlines dedicated to reporting black magic. Saudis are serious about this, as numerous beheadings prove.
The website lists dozens of tip lines in each province, has online forms for the public to report un-Islamic behavior, and uses Facebook. It also used Twitter until last week, when Sheikh Abdul Latif declared that anyone using Twitter “has lost this world and the afterlife,” the latest in a series of attacks by Saudi government officials on the social networking site. Hai’a webmasters are still removing Twitter’s blue bird logo from the website.
Despite these initiatives, it’s not clear that Sheikh Abdul Latif controls his notoriously recalcitrant agency. Last spring he banned Hai’a men from conducting high-speed car chases in pursuit of violators, long a sore point with the Saudi public. But several months later, Hai’a men caused the death of a young father and badly injured his wife and children doing just that.
One problem is the Hai’a does not have a procedural manual. In fact, Saudi Arabia has no written penal code. Saudi judges interpret broad principles of Islamic law as they see fit.
The Hai’a acts similarly, but goes a step further. Hai’a men often invoke the Islamic legal concept of sadd al-dhara’i, “blocking the means to evil.” According to this novel view, not only can Hai’a men intervene to stop un-Islamic behavior, they can stop acceptable behavior that might lead to un-Islamic behavior. Hence, men can be “too handsome.”
An incident last year illustrates the pushback Hai’a men now get from Saudi youth. Hai’a men told a young woman to leave a Riyadh mall because she was wearing nail polish. She scolded them, and uploaded a video of the incident to YouTube that garnered almost 3 million views.
But judging from the thousands of “likes” and dislikes” on the video, public sentiment ran more than 3-to-1 against her. Many Saudis thought she was at fault.
Author and former freelancer for the Monitor Caryle Murphy, who published a book earlier thia year on Saudi youth, was surprised at how many young Saudis she met – even those educated in th West – who defended the Hai'a's mission.
"If it's gone, that means the country is Westernized, so we should keep it," one Saudi studying in the US told her. "But they should be nice to people."
The Saudi king showers the Hai’a with resources while seeking to rein it in. He is expanding the Hai’a’s staff, building expensive new “guidance centers,” and purchasing fleets of new GMC SUVs for the Hai’a men. But in January, the Saudi cabinet ruled that Hai’a men may no longer interrogate suspects or determine the charges against them. They may still arrest people, though, for offenses like practicing witchcraft and consuming alcohol, and they continue to enforce the ban public entertainment, women driving, and other religious rulings.
If women are ever permitted to drive in Saudi Arabia, an avalanche of new religious rulings for the Hai’a to enforce will almost certainly accompany the move. Already, King Abdullah’s 2012 decision to allow women to work in retail shops has increased the Hai’a’s workload. New regulations require all women working in stores to wear the niqab, or face veil, and shops must erect a 5.25 foot partition separating male and female employees.
Partly to address all these new demands, Sheikh Abdul Latif has announced that for the first time in its history, the Hai’a will begin recruiting women – a move that is sure to be interesting in an agency devoted to gender segregation.
*Louise Lief, the former deputy director of the International Reporting Project, is a writer in Washington.