Can Saudi Arabia Reform the Religious Police?

Louise Lief provides a good overview of steps taken by the Saudi government to reform the notorious religious police:

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.

The talk of reforming CPVPV is often repeated every time the King appoints a new chief of the organization. One of the reasons why reform is an extremely difficult challenge is that many of CPVPV employees seem to believe that what they do is not merely a government job but rather a religious duty mandated by God. So despite these efforts to reform, misconduct continue to take place on the country’s streets all the time.

Take, for example, this story of a Saudi woman and her British husband who were accused of being unmarried outside the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina of all places. The husband writes:

My wife told the aggressive Mutaween that I would go and get the marriage certificate, which was only a few kilometers away in our hotel room. However, they kept hold of me and demanded that my tearful wife walk to the hotel to retrieve it. Here we were outside the Prophet’s mosque, being treated so shamelessly by a bunch of thugs!

While my wife was trekking back to the hotel, the Mutaween made several attempts to drag me in to one of their security cars. I constantly resisted, as I was innocent of all the things they were stupidly accusing my wife and me of having done. She returned, still in tears, an hour later with the marriage certificate. The Mutaween inspected the certificate and found that we were telling the truth.

As the Wall Street Journal noted in their interview with the religious police chief last October, “observers are skeptical of the durability of Mr. Sheikh’s reforms, predicting he will meet tough opposition from rank-and-file members of the Hia’a.” Based on recent incidents like this one, these observers are probably right to be skeptical.