PR by Saudi Commission of the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice

Saudi Arabia is infamous for it’s “religious police” who are actually not police but civil servants entrusted with policing society for moral wrongs. Affectionately called Hayya, infamously called Mutawwas, the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice tends to have a love-hate relationship with the population.

The recent change of the Commission leadership by King Abdullah was noted by many. The new head has since then made several statements about the new role of the commission, and the need to tone down the tension.

A noteworthy attempt is the Commission PR booth at the Riyadh Book Fair (March 3-13, 2009 at the new Riyadh Exhibition Center). Amidst the religious books by Saudi publishers, the varied books by Lebanese and Egyptian publishers and the kids books by Syrian publishers is the Commission booth. Not to be confused with the Commission resting/tea area by the info counter, it features examples of items that they have confiscated, photos of items found in raids and also the reasons WHY they are banned. There were also several Commission members explaining things at this fairly popular booth!

If one did not know better, just by the items on display you would assume that they are the Saudi Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) equivalent with a special twist of having an Improper Use of Magic Office a la Harry Potter.

Judging by the number of people that thronged the booth, it was clearly a hit! Perhaps the Hayya need to further reach out through such toned down and educational means. It would certainly give them an opportunity to develop a friendlier relationship with the population.

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Change in Saudi Arabia- Short and Long Term

As we have all read by now, Saudi Arabia has made some changes in its government and brought in more moderates. Some changes were expected, some were nominal while others are profound.

A lot of people focused on the first woman appointee as it heralds something new, however bringing in women is an inevitable change. No matter how much certain segments of society fight this change, it will happen – and within a generation. The reasons are obvious in a country where women will be majority business owners within a decade: demographics, telecommunications and education. By the way, a week or so before these changes, the first female Saudi cultural attache was announced for Canada.

Some are talking about the change of the Justice minister which is in line with the judicial reform that started a few weeks/months ago. Plans to overhaul the system were put into action several months ago.

Others are talking about the changes in education. This is aligned with the changes in curriculum that have already been started, as well as some of the “experimental” programs that have been tried out.

Changes in SAMA, Health and Info/Culture (along with all the other changes) were necessary for stability. The word is that several people maintained their positions/ranks however they have been reformed by internal pressure- better to reform yourself than be replaced!

The next big area is of course the change in the Hayy’a head (Commission for Promotion of Virtue and  Prevention of Vice). This is where it starts to get really interesting, not because of the change in person but because of the change in status quo in the ongoing tussle between the reform agenda of the administration and the religious right. There is a constant thrust-and-parry dance between society and the Hayy’a; the King has come down on the side of society.

The most profound and long term changes are the ones in the Shoura Council. Changing the head is of  course newsworthy. However this is the first time that all four Sunni schools of thought are being represented in the Shoura Council, not just the Hanbali school. Avoiding a history lesson, Wahabbism/Salafism is an off-shoot of the Hanbali school.

Including the other schools of thought on the Shoura Council dilutes the impact of Hanbalism/Wahabbism/Salafism. This is a long term change that has the potential to change the country in unprecedented ways; it effectively weakens the alliance between the House of Saud and the idealogues of  Ibn Abdul Wahab. There are different extreme end points that can come out of this (over the next few decades):

  • the door can be opened to move from a direct monarchy towards a constitutional monarchy
  • the religious right can feel threatened and destabilize the legitimacy of the monarchy
  • the country moves in the direction of becoming the next Dubai

Reality will probably lie somewhere between these extremes. The reign of King Abdullah has initiated the internal reform process. Crown Prince Sultan will have the choice of continuing on this path or reversing its course.

Several news story that cover the recent government changes are given below:

Categorizing Change in Society

Disclaimer: these are thoughts stewing in my head for a little bit. This can eventually become a white paper by refining the following ideas and adding modes of dealing with each.

Change tends to sweep in at different speeds depending on the trigger. A rough way to categorize it is the following:

  • Evolution- this is small, continuous change that happens in systems over long periods of time. Depending on the system being examined evolution plays out over decades and centuries.
  • Reform– this takes generations before it is fully entrenched in peoples mind-sets (a generation is around 20-25 years long). One generation is enough to implement changes and it takes about another generation before the memories of “before” are mostly gone, or at least irrelevant. This tends to start at the top; it requires strong leadership with a long term vision, adequate planning and implementation. This is a proactive role that is necessary to ensure a smooth transition from one status quo to the next.
  • Revolution– this takes years to achieve. This is a word that most governments fear as it is usually assumed to be violent. The connotation is that change will OVERTHROW the status quo. Revolutions are often bottom-up and occur when the status quo gets too oppressive and there is apparently (too) little happening at the top. The conditions for revolution fester when reform is not iterative and the status quo stagnates in a bad place.
  • Crisis– this takes weeks to months to play out. It can cause serious (sometimes irreparable) social fractures. How it is dealt with often sets the tone for other scenarios to play out as they are invariably the catalyst for other types of changes. What is interesting about crises is that they are a consequence of the interaction between internal and external factors. Inadequate anticipation, ignoring causality and avoidance of feedback tend to aggravate crises.
  • Catastrophe– these happen in days to weeks and are often precipitated by external factors. There are limited response options available once events have started playing out.

Each of these modes of change is roughly an order of magnitude smaller than the previous one in the list (decades, years, months, weeks etc).