Commission Makeover? Good Luck with That

The Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice has a new president. Abdul-Latif Al-alsheikh is a descendant of Mohammad bin Abdul-Wahhab, the preacher whose pact with Muhammad bin Saud helped to establish the first Saudi state more than 250 years ago. But the first time I heard of Al-alskheikh was in 2010 when he joined a heated debate in the country about gender mixing.

On that debate, Al-alsheikh took what many considered a moderate stance when compared to the official stance taken by the Commission. “Gender mixing is here by need and necessity,” he told al-Jazirah daily. “Such practice was not born today or in this age, but rather has existed for a very long time, including the early days of Islam.” Al-alsheikh went on to say that Sharia did not ban gender mixing, but rather allowed it within certain limits.

Other notable names who took this side of the debate included Sheikh Ahmad al-Ghamdi, former head of the Commission in Makkah, former judge Eisa al-Gheith and the current Justice Minister Mohammad al-Eisa. On the opposite side of the debate you had more traditionalist clerics who warned that any easing of gender segregation rules will lead to dangerous consequences such as sexual promiscuity and complete social disintegration.

At the time, the Commission was welcoming a new president to its ranks. Abdul-Aziz al-Humayyen was appointed for the post as part of a major cabinet reshuffle ordered by King Abdullah on Valentine’s Day 2009. Al-Humayyen was hailed as a reformer, and he promised to fix the Commission and end transgressions. That did not happen. Five months ago, he was replaced by Al-alskheikh.

Before being appointed as a new head of the Commission on January 13, 2012, Al-alsheikh served as an assistant general secretary of the Council of Senior Ulema as well as an advisor to the former governor of Riyadh Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz. He is married and has four children.

Like his predecessor, Al-alsheikh came to the new job with promises of change and reform. On his first few weeks he made the headlines when he announced that the Commission patrols will no longer chase suspects in the streets. The decision was well-received because several people have been killed or injured in high speed chasing incidents in recent years, but also made some conservatives uneasy as it indicated that the new president seemed more than willing to limit the powers enjoyed by his feared men.

Al-alsheikh has had some quiet months on the job since then, but that did not last for long. The Nail Polish Girl affair came and forced him to speak up.

The typical response to stories like this in the past was usually very defensive. Typically, the Commission president or spokesman man would come out to defend and justify the aggressive behavior of their staff in the field, and accuse the media – local and international – of targeting the Commission and being biased against it.

However, things went a bit differently this time. Instead of defending them, Al-alsheikh attempted to play down the story and instead directed criticism at his own men saying Commission members who abuse their power would be fired immediately.

That was unusual, to say the least.

Are we finally going to see change in the Commission? Is Al-alshiekh serious about reform? And even if he has a true desire to fix it, can he actually do that? The Commission annual report for last year offers some numbers that could help us answer the aforementioned questions.

According to the report, most of the employees in this government body are not very educated. The Commission employs 4389 men: 60% of the these employees do not have a college degree, and half of those did not even finish high school. It is safe to assume that most of them are field officers, the ones you usually see in malls and patrolling streets in white GMC trucks.

The report indicates that the Commission field offers have arrested 392,325 persons for two types of offense: religious and moral. That number translates to 1.5% of the country’s population, and it shows a 20% increase over the previous year

The news items that I have read summarizing the report’s conclusions do not provide more details regarding the nature of the offenses, but based on history we can probably guess that the definition of what actions count as offenses depend on the interpretation the Commission field officers. The very same officers who severely lack education and who seem to act as if they are entitled by God to perform their job, even if that meant infringing on citizens’ rights and invading their privacy.

Looking at the numbers, history and the status quo in the country, fixing the Commission might seem like an impossible mission. There are very few reasons to be optimistic, and so many ones to be pessimistic. Abdul-Latif Al-alshiekh has to turn it around and somehow make it work in a modern country where citizens know their rights and fight for them. He will probably need a magic wand. Would his men let him have one?

Head of CPVPV weeps, Head of NSHR talks

  • Sheikh Abdul-Latif Al-alsheikh, head of CPVPV, joins the growing crowd of weeping clerics, though unfortunately we don’t have a video of the incident. The tears were spilled during a meeting with his staff as he recalled a conversation with King Abdullah. Al-alskheikh said the king asked him to avoid using violence against citizens. Al-alsheikh also commented on the Nail Polish Girl issue, saying the story has been exaggerated. “The world is making airplanes and we are telling a woman to leave the mall because she is wearing nail polish,” he exclaimed.

Nail polish photo

  • Arab New interviews Moflih al-Qahtani, chairman of NSHR, to talk about the society’s latest report that was published yesterday. “Our report is in support of the Kingdom’s efforts worldwide to sustain its positive image among international human rights organizations,” he said. I thought the goal was to highlight the human rights situation in the country in order to improve it. Silly me.

NSHR new report, Crown Prince health, Madawi and Nail Polish Girl

  • The National Society for Human Rights (NSHR) published their third report on the human rights situation in the country. Their previous two reports were well received, and this one will probably get the same reception. The report’s main theme is that the government executive bodies have failed to meet the ambitions of King Abdullah. At the end of the report, NSHR provided a list of recommendations including suggestions for partial elections of the Shoura Council as well as limiting transgressions by security forces and CPVPV members against citizens. Full text of the report in Arabic is available here (PDF)
  • Crown Prince Naif left the country last week for “routine medical checkups,” according to the state news agency. His deputy, Prince Ahmad bin Abdulaziz, told local media Saturday that “Prince Naif is fine, I spoke with him last night. He is in good health and will come back soon.”
  • Madawi al-Rasheed says Nail Polish Girl is no hero because her confrontation with the Commission was not “grounded in demands for both personal freedoms and political and civil rights for men and women. Until then, Saudis and the rest of the world will continue to watch YouTube clips of futile disconnected incidents, grounded in sensationalism and imagined heroism,” she says. Rana Jarbou, on Twitter, disagrees: “I highly respect Madawi Al-Rasheed, but I find the ‘Nail Polish Girl’ more relevant to my plight as a ‪Saudi‬ woman.”

Saudi Jeans Turns 8, Nail Polish Girl

Saudi Jeans turned 8 earlier this month. I did not mark the occasion with a post as I usually do, but I thought I would give the blog a facelift. As you can see, the redesign features (much) bigger typography with content taking center stage. It is still work-in-progress, so I will be polishing this over the next few days.

Speaking of polish, you probably have already seen the nail polish girl video. If you haven’t, here it is:

Eman al-Nafjan already wrote a good post about it, but I thought I would add my two halalas. What makes the incident interesting is not just that the girl is standing up to the Commission members (other women have done it in the past) but that she also tells them they have no right to chase her, she documents the whole thing on video and threatens to expose them on social media. She then reports them to the police who seemed pretty confused over what to do about it.

Abdul-Latif Al-alsheikh, the newly appointed chief of the Commission said the incident will be investigated. “We do not accept transgressions or mistakes by Commission members, but we also do not accept transgressions against them at all,” he told Sabq which reported that the Commission is now seeking legal action against the girl. This has become a trend: conservatives who for a long time despised government regulations because they are “man-made laws” are now using such regulations to sue people at courts where they are sure to find sympathetic judges to rule in their favour.

Bogus Trends

Trend stories are some of my least favourite kind of stories in the media. Even worse, many of these trend stories tend to be bogus. “The bogus trend story thrives thanks to the journalists who never let the facts get in the way when they think they’ve discovered some new social tendency,” says Slate’s Jack Shafer.

It is said that one is an exception, two is a coincidence, but three is a trend. However, when it comes to Saudi Arabia and its infamous religious police two is more than enough to make a trend, apparently. During the last week, international media went crazy over two little stories about attacks on the members of Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV) aka Haia.

haya_logo_inverseMany reporters who worked on these stories from abroad called their sources in the Kingdom asking them the same question: Does this incident (and later these two incidents) indicate a shift in attitude by the public towards the religious police? Regardless of the answers they got, they somehow came out with pieces along the line that Saudi people have had it and are finally rising up against Haia.

Sorry to disappoint you guys, but I really do not think this is the case. The talk about a revolt against Haia is a gross exaggeration. What these stories suggest is not an anti-Commission revolution but rather a change in the press. Few years ago these kind of stories won’t make headlines; now they do. Local media cannot be blamed for hyping up Haia stories because, well, they sell. It is outside observers and self-appointed experts that should be blamed for falling for bogus trends.


For many outsiders, I think the current debate over gender mixing in Saudi Arabia can either be seen as a) a fascinating change to a very conservative society, or b) a sign for a society that is stuck in the 19th century. Nevertheless, I think it is a good thing that we are having this debate, for I have always said that as long as they are not killing each other, people should be allowed to talk.

What is more interesting this time around is that the debate is playing out amongst conservatives in contrast to the usual conservatives vs liberals bickering. Ahmad al-Ghamdi is not just a shiekh; he is a senior official at the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, a bastion of orthodox conservatism in the country, and the institution which seems to believe it has a duty from God to enforce their moral code on society, including segregation of men and women.

To have one of its loyal sons attacking some of the basis on which they operate daily is nothing short of astonishing. Al-Ghamdi has been working in the Commission for the past fifteen years. He said he has had these opinions for almost ten years but he never had the courage to publish them. Why now? Obviously because the atmosphere has changed. The opening of KAUST and its aftermath made the needed room for this debate to expand enough that even a shiekh like al-Ghamdi can now publicly speak out without fear.

Most conservatives were outraged. Many of them denounced al-Ghamdi and his ideas. Even the grand mufti, who typically stays out of similar debates, weighed in heavily to criticize al-Ghamdi in his sermons, though without naming him. Last week a group of young religious men stood at the door of al-Ghamdi’s house demanding to mix with his wife and daughters. It was a pathetic attempt to embarrass him. They were later arrested, but the disturbing thing is that some people who disagree with him, including a professor of Islamic studies in Makkah, saw nothing wrong in what these young men did.

When confronted that his opinions contradict the field work of subordinates in Hia’a, Ahmad al-Ghamdi prefers to avoid details. Instead, he says the Commission needs to be reformed, and that they have been working in that direction. But is this true? Is Hai’a reforming? Or should I ask, can it be reformed?

Reform is the promise that came with the new chief of CPVPV shiekh Abdulaziz al-Humain, who has been absolutely silent on this whole al-Ghamdi controversy. Where does he stand in all of this? What does he think about this saga?

The rumors of sacking al-Ghamdi made this all more fascinating, but provided little concrete conclusions. Earlier this week, the state news agency distributed a statement from the Commission about four new appointments in Hai’a, including a replacement for al-Ghamdi. But few hours later, SPA withdrew the item and asked newspapers not to run it. A spokesman for Hai’a told al-Hayat daily the news about new appointments were inaccurate.

So what happened here exactly? We can think of few theories. It could be that the old guard in Hai’a wanted to get back at al-Ghamdi for what he said about them, and did this without al-Humain’s knowledge. When al-Humain knew about this he cancelled it. Another theory is that it was al-Humain’s decision to get rid of al-Ghamdi who has become too hot to handle, but then someone high above reversed the decision. You can never underestimate the powers to be in Saudi Arabia, especially that al-Ghamdi is riding the new liberal wave in the country that Prince Saud al-Faisal talked about.

We probably will never know the truth. But what we know for sure is that Ahmad al-Ghamdi and his opinions are here to stay. At least for the time being. A picture is worth a thousand words, it is often said.

Another question: is this debate really changing how the general public feel about gender mixing? I would say: No. Socio-religious beliefs are very difficult to change. Even more difficult in a conformist society like ours. I think that people who are pro-mixing would feel validated as someone from the other side jumped the ship, while anti-mixing people would simply dismiss it as an individual case that can’t shake their long held convictions.

For examples, look at hospitals which have always been some of the few places in the country where men and women work side by side. I currently train at a hospital pharmacy in Hofuf. The pharmacy has separate windows to serve male and female patients, but from the inside pharmacists and technicians of both sexes work together without segregation. To reduce dispensing errors, a new policy has been recently implemented where some female pharmacists work on the male window while some male pharmacists work on the female window.

I asked a female colleague, let’s call her Zainab, what is it like to work on the male window. “Work is work,” she said, “it’s the same for me here or there.” A male colleague who was in earshot, let’s call him Basheer, turned to me and asked, “would you let your wife work in a place like this?” I was shocked by the question, but I calmly replied that I certainly would. I said it is a respectful and professional work environment, so what’s the problem? I glanced quickly at Zainab who was standing next to me, then asked him: do you find anything dishonorable or disgraceful about working here?

Basheer said that some guys are jealous and can’t let their wives mix freely with men. “I’m that kind of guy,” he added. I was struck by the hypocrisy of what he said. He finds it acceptable for him to be here and work with other women, but apparently the same rules don’t apply to his wife. This kind of hypocrisy, however, is nothing new. It is a typical symptom of the double standards many Saudis practice in their lives everyday.

It will take time for the general public’s perception of gender mixing to change, and nobody knows how long it will take. Probably a very long time. As with everything else in Saudi Arabia, I’m not holding my breath.

Haia Joins the Modern Age

When did the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (Haia) launch their “Precrime Unit,” a la Stephen Spielberg’s Minority Report? I must have missed the announcement in the middle of this deafening debate over gender mixing.

In a decision that was justified by claiming it was doing the women a favor, the Haia’s branch in Al-Mujaradah has banned women from jogging and other physical exercise in certain areas of this Asir town, south of the country. The decision was based, according to an anonymous Haia source, on records from the commission that described one particular street in the town where women were banned as lonely, poorly lighted, and frequented by drug addicts and other anti-social people. However, this was disputed by one jogger, R.S Al-Shahri, who claimed that the street was safe and well-lit, while almost 30 women would walk there between sunset and Isha prayers.

You can say that this decision by Haia is part preemptive strike, part blaming the victim. Instead of watching these so-called unsafe areas and protect the women by arresting people who attempt to harass them, they go and prevent women from exercising there. Now of course this kind of behavior is not at all new or surprising on the part of Haia, but it happens that we are finally at a time when the Commission can get questioned over some of their actions. What used to be taboo in the past i.e. criticizing the CPVPV, is now a daily practice in the local media.

One of the latest examples comes from al-Madina daily, written by none other than a granddaughter of the Kingdom’s founder. Princess Basma bint Saud, who blogs here, wrote a scathing column calling the Haia to get their act together, telling them that fighting corruption starts from within, and that they should spend their time investigating the theft of public money instead of chasing women and men in barbaric fashion that was not ordered by God or his messenger. Interesting by her royal highness, so very interesting.