Saudi Arabia religious police lose power to arrest

Under new guidelines,super strict religious police ordered to be 'kinder and gentler' in enforcing Islamic rules.

Shoshana Miskin ,

Muslim women in burqa face veils (illustration)
Muslim women in burqa face veils (illustration)
Serge Attal/Flash 90

The Saudi Arabian government has stripped its controversial police force of their power to arrest, urging them to act more “kindly and gentle” when enforcing the country’s strict Islamic rules.

The Haia force, also known as the Mutawaa, are the religious police who make arrests against Saudi citizens for crimes like women failing to dress modestly, witchcraft and drinking alcohol. Under changes approved by the cabinet, religious officers will now be now required to report offenses to local police and vice officers.

"Neither the heads nor members of the Haia are to stop or arrest or chase people or ask for their IDs or follow them - that is considered the jurisdiction of the police or the drug unit," the new regulations say.

Formally known as the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV), the religious officers’ tactics have regularly been the subject of controversy - most recently in February when members were arrested for assaulting a young woman outside a Riyadh shopping mall, local media said at the time.

"I believe it's a very good change," said the former head of Mecca's religious police, Sheikh Ahmed al-Ghamdi, adding that the change should have been sooner.

The government’s decision comes amid an ongoing conflict between liberal Saudis and Salafi Saudis over the religious character of the Kingdom.