What reform? The perils of the Saudi 'public decency' law

What reform? The perils of the Saudi 'public decency' law
Saudi Arabia's recent public decency law lays bare the limitations of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman's "liberalising reforms", writes Hakim Khatib.
5 min read
09 August, 2019
Saudi Arabia's new public decency law has social and economic implications [AFP/Getty]
While Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's notion of "moderate Islam" aims at presenting Saudi Arabia as an enlightened 21st century state, recent so-called public decency law lays bare the limits of his social reforms. The law is supposed to define what is and what is not appropriate in public space yet many of its elements contradict the Crown Prince's much-hyped reform agenda.

Needless to say, the Crown Prince is walking a fine line between curbing the power of the longstanding ultraconservative religious institutionalism in the kingdom and keeping conservative quarters but also moderate but independent clerics compliant if not behind bars.

The public decency law, approved by the Saudi government last April, comes on the back of a series of social reforms in recent years. Most important of which are lifting of a ban on women's driving, scaling back guardianship laws that restrict women's roles and movement, easing of gender segregation and introduction of modern forms of entertainment such as mixed-gender cinemas, theatre and concerts. 

These social reforms are coupled with efforts to diversify and liberalise the Saudi economy, the largest in the region, away from a near total dependence on oil.

This (law) is an effort to balance the pressure from conservative elements of society that accuse the government of allowing things to go 'out of control'

Yet, the restrictions laid out by the public decency law align with the kingdom's adoption of an ultraconservative interpretation of Islam, which has not particularly been a champion of social reforms.

While the Crown Prince's relaxed social reforms find dissidence within the conservative quarters in the kingdom, the new public decency law seems to seek to mitigate their discontent.

"This (law) is an effort to balance the pressure from conservative elements of society that accuse the government of allowing things to go 'out of control'," claimed Ali Shihabi, founder of the pro-Saudi think-tank Arabia Foundation (Editor's note: now defunct).

Public decency law in perspective

The law demands adherence to the respectful dress code of the kingdom and thus bans clothing with questionable prints on them. Only this week, the law, despite not being fully in force yet, was invoked to ban satirical t-shirts showing support for Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar.

It also bans men's shorts, which are deemed offensive to "public tastes". The law also criminalises unlicensed "harmful" graffiti, offensive phrases or using racist language, subjecting women and children to pranks, and playing loud music or making disruptive sounds in public.

In addition to these broad rules, the law also prohibits crossing a queue in a public space, filming people without their consent, placing advertisements in front of homes or on cars, littering, and going into mosques with dirty clothes. 

While the law packages public decency as representing Saudi "values, traditions and culture", most of its components align with Saudi Arabia's austere interpretation of Islam. In Shihabi's words, "The Saudi leadership wants to undermine the Islamist basis of social power while still maintaining absolute political control and public order."

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This seems to be true. The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (religious police) has faded from the Saudi scene after a decision to freeze the powers of its members in 2016. The religious police had the power to arrest and punish violators of "public taste" without any legal basis.

Now the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTH) is in charge of enforcing the new law. It is responsible for appointing administrative regulators in order to enforce the provisions of the law. While the religious police previously had the power to impose fines and decide punishments for public misconduct, this power will now be transferred to the regular police.

The impact of the law is beyond social

The enforcement of the law effectively means reviving the role of religious police. The only difference is that in the past, religious police enforced "public decency" without legal backing, while now the regular police will have legal grounds to "protect public decency".

But the controversy of the proposed law does not stop at hindering social reforms and restricting personal freedoms. It actually extends beyond that to affect the Crown Prince's economic reforms.

The enforcement of public decency law indicates that Saudi Arabia has not yet departed from its longstanding ultraconservative religious institutionalism

One of the objectives the Crown Prince's Vision 2030 is supposed to achieve is diversifying and liberalising the Saudi economy. Attempting to follow Dubai's success in the tourism sector, Saudi government is hoping to increase spending on this sector from $27.9bn in 2015 to $46.6bn in 2020 and then transform tourism to become a key part of its Vision 2030. Yet, the law increases restrictions on expats and tourists, which is not particularly beneficial for tourism.

One of the key issues Saudi Vision 2030 aims to achieve is establishing a new economic zone on 470km of the Red Sea coast in order to lure investors from all parts of the world. While this sounds progressive, the enforcement of the public decency law would mean less attraction of investors.

The Crown Prince's efforts to foster reforms in the kingdom are to be applauded because of their importance. Nonetheless, the enforcement of public decency law indicates that Saudi Arabia has not yet departed from its longstanding ultraconservative religious institutionalism.

Finally, the controversy of the public decency law does not only lie in its contradiction to the aspired reforms but also in its implementation. There is a lack of mechanisms to enforce it in the first place due to the vagueness of its content. Thus, the rules suggested in the law remain subject to discretionary interpretation.

Hakim Khatib is a research fellow at the Frankfurt Research Centre on Global Islam at the Goethe University Frankfurt in Gemrany and the editor-in-chief of the Mashreq Politics and Culture Journal.

Follow him on Twitter: @MPCJournal