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Growing Pains of Reform in Saudi Arabia

Reform is a slow process that takes years and sometimes generations. The ongoing tussle between the public and the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (Hayya) is one of the expected growing pains of reform in Saudi Arabia. A recent example was the Riyadh Book Fair, held during the past two weeks.

The event has received much publicity, both local and international. Other than the usual censorship issues, a lot of the attention has been criticism, aimed at an incident where two male authors were harassed by the Hayya for wanting to get the signature of a female author.

As in previous years the Hayya were out in full force and, ignoring their PR booth, were asserting their role as guardians of public morality. What is interesting to note is that the Hayya appear to have become more relaxed over time. This year saw most hours dedicated to family entrance and very little for gender segregated ones. Additionally it was the first time that women were allowed to work at the fair.

Below are excerpts from news reports about Hayya action in previous years and also links to other bloggers who wrote about the 2009 Riyadh Book Fair.

2006 Arab News: Lessons of Riyadh Book Fair

According to press reports, members and volunteers of the Commission for the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue were in force everywhere. In the family days, where single men are not allowed, they were the exception. Carrying sticks and wielding religious authority, they went around telling women to cover their faces, wear “abayas” (black cloak) over their heads in one piece, rather than two — head scarf and body cover. In some instances, they told salesmen in bookstands not to smile or joke when talking to women. A man holding the hand of his half-blind wife was told not to show affection in public.

2009 Arab News: Frustrating Experience

The book fair, which ends on Friday, has been marked with controversy once again — with liberal and literary minded people complaining of harassment by the commission. For their part, religious authorities have complained, not just about the mingling of men and women at the fair or how women are dressed, but also about how they claim their voices are being quelled by the visitors.

In one of the more highly publicized incidents at the fair, Saudi writer Halemah Mozaffar was verbally accosted by men who identified themselves as commission members and accused her of immorality for not having her face covered and for signing books given to her by men — she had signed the books as the men had asked her to do so out of admiration for her work.

What is essential for reform is the continuation of raised voices about these controversial topics, with support and encouragement from the media. With Commission members no longer carrying sticks and two piece abayas being quite common, it should be interesting to see what happens at the 2009 Janadriyah festival which is allowing family days for the first time.

Writings by other bloggers on the Riyadh Book Fair 2009:

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Images of Riyadh: MAJOR Dust Storm

This dust storm came super fast. The sky turned dark and yellow within a matter of minutes. Here is the view of Faisaliyah Tower:

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The last dust storm:

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The normal view:

 faisaliyah

Here is a view of Olaya Street:

sandstorm

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.

Free Tours of Riyadh: Saudi Tourism

SCTA offers free tours of Riyadh
Saeed Al-Khotani | Arab News

RIYADH: The Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA) started operating free sightseeing tours on Saturday in Riyadh.

The newly appointed executive manager of Riyadh Tourism Development Bureau, Abdul Rahman Al-Jassas, told Arab News that these tours aim at introducing Riyadh’s landmarks to stimulate tourism in the city, increase the number of visitors and encourage tour operators to offer such tours regularly.

He said the tours are conducted in cooperation with the Saudi Arabian Public Transport Company (SAPTCO).

“According to the terms of cooperation, we pay for the costs of tour guides and advertising campaigns while SAPTCO provides transportation on modern, comfortable buses,” he said. “These tours, which operate twice a day, are free of charge for Riyadh visitors and residents and will continue until the end of the week. A tour guide will explain and answer any questions about the city’s landmarks.”

The trips start from Prince Salman Science Oasis on King Abdullah Road, north of Riyadh. The first tour starts at 4:30 p.m., and the second starts at 6:30 p.m. every day, Al-Jassas pointed out.

The tours cover most prominent landmarks in the city, such as Al-Aziziyah, Ghurnatha, the old Diriya town, the Kingdom and Al-Faisaliah towers, the King Abdul Aziz Historical Center, Al-Masmak Palace and the traditional rug market.

Images of Riyadh: First Dust Storm of the Season

Faisaliyah Tower in a dust storm/sandstorm. In case you forgot what it looks like normally, the photo is below for comparison.

 

Fine dust blows into everything, coming in through every crack- windows, doors, air conditioning vents, exhaust vents. Breathing is labored as it gets into your lungs. Land and air visibility is greatly reduced. People wax poetic about shamals, I tend to cough.

Looking up the various types, remember my last post about driving through a sandstorm with intermittent rain? That is officially called a haboob

Images of Riyadh: Faisaliyah Tower in a dust-storm

Visibility and breathing are severely impaired during dust-storms. Below is what it looks like normally.

Images of Riyadh: Wadi Hanifah

This is a dam in the middle of nowhere in Wadi Hanifah. One can only presume that when it rains it pours! There is a lovely stonehenge-esque BBQ area for family fun.