There is a sense that King Abdulaziz might be concerned about his legacy, his image, or might just be getting soft in his old age. Previous posts have alluded to this. Today he replaced the head of the Committee for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice due, some claim, to them becoming too aggressive. The new head is, reportedly, a reformer and a liberal (by Saudi standards).
I saw the Muttawa in action for the first time last week, seemingly arresting a gentleman who was attempting to recreate Speaker’s Corner near the Corniche. They had the police to back them up and seemed to be doing everything in a civilised manner, just asking him to move on and go home.
This week, I also expressed to a friend of mine that I didn’t want to buy an electric guitar in case I got Muttawa’d. Obviously this was slightly tongue in cheek, but he pointed out that even if I was engaged in some extremely provocative behaviour the Muttawa wouldn’t care because I have “the right passport” (i.e a White Man’s passport). I’m aware that I am treated differently and less likely to get into trouble, but amongst the expat community you hear stories of westerners being deliberately targeted. Often this is for downright stupid behaviour, for instance alcohol-related crimes or (in one example) advertising a rooftop Christmas party with a poster in the lobby of your hotel. The recent case of a westerner being arrested for displaying New Year’s balloons is less-obviously idiotic, but most people I know managed to avoid celebrating New Year…it’s really not that difficult.
Lots of the moaning by Westerners about how they are treated in Saudi Arabia is the kind you would read in the Daily Mail. Ok, I’m sure things are different in Riyadh, but here in Jeddah it only takes a small adjustment (mainly alcohol-related) to avoid getting into any kind of trouble. For women it’s a less minor adjustment, but most of the encounters with the religious police described on blogs seem to be due to attire. Now, the clothing I see Western women wearing compared to their Saudi counterparts is positively scandalous!
My point here isn’t that Saudi Arabia is some bastion of liberal values, or that life here is easy (especially for women). It’s that westerners should look around them before complaining. Try living as a Bangladeshi in Saudi for a few weeks, or as a Filipina cleaner. Or even as a Saudi. Most Westerners have a choice about coming here, they know what to expect, they know the rules. It’s not hard to play by them, especially when you’re earning mega-bucks and probably propping up the people that make those rules.
We should also question the sources of our stories. Many horror stories I hear of how the Muttawa treat westerners (NB: undoubtedly their treatment of Saudis is, at times, terrible) are second or third hand…and often just read somewhere on the internet. In England, I wouldn’t listen to anyone quoting the Daily Mail. Should I listen to those who quote unverified internet sources?