RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia’s Shura Council, an influential advisory body to the government, will vote on a proposal to merge the religious police into the ministry of Islamic affairs, local media reported, further curbing the force’s authority.
The religious police, officially known as the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, patrols public spaces to enforce bans on alcohol, music, prayer time, store closures and the mixing of unrelated men and women. It also imposes strict modesty requirements on women’s dress.
Last year, amid a reform drive to diversify the Saudi economy and open up its society, the government increased curbs on the religious police, barring it from pursuing suspects or making arrests.
Saudi Gazette reported late on Sunday that the proposal to end the commission’s autonomous status, put forward by Atta Al-Thibaiti and two other members, is expected to see a vote next week. King Salman’s approval would be needed to implement such a measure.
“The promotion of virtue and prevention of vice is an Islamic duty for every Muslim, and the Sharia tenets had never considered practicing [that] to be under an independent organ or an autonomous entity,” the report said, citing the proposal’s supporters.
The Shura members were quoted as saying the merger would also help ease the state’s budget deficit by “avoiding duplication of efforts and cutting expenditure”.
Hardline conservatives say the religious police are central to imposing the kingdom’s austere form of Sunni Islam, while aggressive enforcement of strict morality rules has drawn criticism from more liberal Saudis.
The vice squad has come under fire online and in local media over several high-profile cases of car chases resulting in fatal accidents, prompting the commission’s president to ban such pursuits in 2012.
The commission stirred controversy again last year after video posted on social media showed members beating a young woman outside a Riyadh mall. The patrol had tried to force the woman to cover her face, local media reported.
Saudi Gazette quoted Thibaiti as saying the proposal to merge the two bodies had overcome initial opposition by the Shura’s committee on Islamic and judicial affairs. Members could not immediately be reached for comment.
Reporting By Stephen Kalin; Editing by Sami Aboudi and Janet Lawrence