Saudis order religious cops to get people skills training

Wednesday, June 25, 2003

ABU DHABI Saudi Arabia has, for the first time, taken action to maintain discipline in the ranks of the kingdom's controversial religious police.

The initiatiave was undertaken after complaints from Western defense contractors as well as Saudi nationals who said the religious police have increased harassment over the last year. The police force, meant to operate without weapons, is under the authority of the Saudi Islamic Affairs Ministry.

Their main job is to enforce public observance of Islamic codes, such as a ban on alcohol, women driving alone or dress deemed as improper. So far, officials said, more than 200 officers have begun attending the course.

Officials said the religious police, known as the muta'waa, have been ordered to undergo training to improve their relations with the public. They said this was the first time the police and their officers have been ordered to undergo courses meant to improve service and relations with pedestrians and others in the kingdom.

The religious police force, formally known as the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, comprises about 4,000 officers. Virtually all of them are graduates of Islamic seminaries and many of them were sent to Afghanistan to fight the Soviet troops in the early 1990s, Middle East Newsline reported.

"We have signed an agreement with a specialized institute to provide training to our field staff as they are the ones regularly in touch with the public," Salah Ibn Nasser Al Saeed, acting director of the commission, said.

Al Saeed said the training would promote communication skills and personnel management. He said senior officers would be taught how to plan and implement missions.

"These topics are extremely important for the personal and job development of the commission's officials," Al Saeed was quoted by the Jedda-based Arab News as saying. "The program has had a positive impact on our staff and we have seen good results."

In March 2002, the religious police were accused of preventing the escape of school girls from their burning classes. Fifteen girls were killed in a stampede when the police locked the gates and prevented firemen from entering the building.

Afterwards, the police were said to have justified the action by saying that the girls were not veiled. Officials later denied the report.

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