Saudi Arabia reduces powers of religious police

‘We shall not tolerate any mistakes’

RIYADH - The new head of Saudi Arabia's notorious religious police has said he will cut back on the number of "undercover" patrols by his organisation which enforces the kingdom's strict Islamic rules.
"The number of undercover vehicles will be reduced in all regions, and we shall reconsider their tasks by either regulating their work or cancelling it all together," Abdullatif al-Sheikh said, quoted by local media on Tuesday.
He said that members of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice will "stop chasing" violators and in the case of "minor breaches" will note down the culprit's vehicle registration number and pass it on to regular police.
"We shall not tolerate any mistakes," he said referring to the behaviour of his 4,000-strong force, after several incidents stirred anger among Saudis.
The monarch, a cautious reformer, in January appointed Sheikh, a moderate member of an influential religious family, to replace Abdulaziz al-Humain at the helm of the organisation which ensures strict application of the country's ultra-conservative version of Islam.
But the head of the Association for Civil Rights, Mohammed al-Qahtani, downplayed the importance of the step, describing it as just a "cosmetic change."
"They are trying to convince people that they are doing something, but their job will not be regulated without political reforms," he said.
"It is an attempt by authorities to blame a former chief and appoint another... while authorities, especially the interior ministry, are responsible for the commission," he added.
In 2002, the force, known as the mutaween, reportedly prevented firemen from entering an all-girls school that was ablaze because of the segregation-of-sexes policy, and blocked the girls from escaping because they were not wearing the obligatory veil.
Fourteen girls were trampled to death and 50 hurt in a stampede after the fire broke out.
The religious police prevent women from driving, require them to be covered from head to foot in black, ban public entertainment, and force all commerce, from supermarkets to petrol stations, to come to a halt at prayer times, five times a day.