Saudi Arabia recently announced that it had stripped its religious police of its power to arrest people when carrying out its duties to enforce sharia, Islamic law. It's a subject I've researched and written about throughout my Sasha Del Mira espionage series—Trojan Horse, Sasha Returns, Arab Summer and my most recent novel, On Home Soil. The Saudi religious police, known variously by the names the Mutawwa’in, the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (I’m not kidding), and Haia, enforce the strict rules of the Islamic code of behavior as outlined in sharia.
For example, the religious police will arrest women who are not "properly" clothed. That means not wearing an abaya—a formless black robe concealing any aspect of her anatomy—or a hijab—a head scarf covering her hair. Or caught driving a car. Or not accompanied by a male family member or husband; male friends or boyfriends won’t do. Or anyone, man or woman, caught drinking alcohol, using drugs or smoking tobacco in public. That’s not an exhaustive list.
What the new Saudi directive means is that the religious police will have to report those violating sharia to the police or the drug police instead of making the arrests themselves. It's not clear what that means in practical terms, but it doesn't sound like much of a change.
The Saudi regime, which has been led on and off by the Al Saud family for centuries, and which passes down its leadership exclusively through members of its royal family, was founded and is still firmly rooted in the Wahhabi sect of the Sunni Muslim faith. Wahhabism is an especially strict and reactionary interpretation of the Muslim religion, very similar to that of ISIS’ interpretation of it.
That's a scary concept, although the Saudi regime learned decades ago to pacify the Saudi masses with generous social welfare programs to keep the peace and tamp down any potential uprisings that could unseat them. That's also a fundamental element of my Sasha Del Mira series.
Lately, with the collapse of oil prices from over $100 a barrel in 2014 to the mid-20s per barrel in the first quarter of 2016, recently recovering only to the $40 per barrel level, the Saudi regime is under increasing pressure. It’s consuming its financial reserves to maintain funding of its social programs. That is it’s only means of keeping the average Saudi schlub from rising up against the Saudi royal family billionaires who live in the gilded Royal Palace and spend indiscriminately on anything and everything they want.
Think the Saudi 1% trying to placate Bernie Sanders by stuffing billions of dollars worth of caviar and fine French pate down his gullet.
So rather than looking at this recent curtailment of the powers of the Saudi religious police as a major social change, see it only as another means of the Saudi royals placating a restive Saudi public. A Saudi public that feels ever more oppressed by its elitist regime that’s been dominating the Saudi economy and culture for generations.
The situation isn’t stable.
It makes a good backdrop for thrillers.