Saudi Arabia’s Religious Police Pounce in Starbucks

A business woman and her financial analyst colleague were having coffee in the “family section” of a Starbucks coffeehouse in Riyadh when they were approached by two men.

Family sections are the only places where men and women can sit together in establishments in Saudi Arabia. Officially, these sections are for families only, but in practical terms these sections – usually in international chains like Starbucks – become the only places where unrelated men and women can be comfortable that they won’t be harassed by commission members.

“What,” you ask, “are ‘commission members’?” I’ll tell you.

These are Saudi Arabia’s very own Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. Think of it as an Arab version of the KGB, except that its raison d’être is random harassment of its citizens for purported violations of propriety.

Remember the girls who were sent back in the burning school building because they had fled the fire without grabbing their veils? That was the crowning highlight of these thugs enforcers of the law.

This recent incident is merely a routine call. Here is how Arab News covered it:

Yara, a petite 40-year-old woman, was in tears yesterday after she narrated to Arab News her encounter with a commission member that ended in high drama.

Yara, who has been married for 27 years, said she spent several hours in the women’s section of Riyadh’s Malaz Prison, was strip-searched, ordered to sign a confession that she was in a state of “khulwa” (a state of seclusion with an unrelated man) and for hours prevented from contacting her husband in Jeddah.

Her crime? Having a cup of coffee with a colleague in a Starbucks.

Yara said she arrived in the capital yesterday morning from Jeddah to check on the company’s new office.

“The minute I came into the office my colleagues told me that we have an issue with the electricity company and that we do not have power but that it would be back on in half an hour,” she said.

As they were waiting, they decided to go to the ground floor of the building to have a cup of coffee in the family section of Starbucks.

That’s when her troubles began. She and her male colleague were separated. He, a Syrian, was put in jail, while Yara was put through her paces as a sinful Muslima:
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“Then (the commission member) came to me and said: ‘You need to come with us. This man is not a relative,’” she said.

When she told the commission member that she wanted to contact her husband by phone, he refused.

“I am the government,” Yara quoted him as saying. He then ordered her to come with him.

She was first locked in a van while various officers of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice came by and lectured her on her lack of virtue. Then Yara was forced to sign a “confession” and a false statement that her phone and purse had been returned to her. When she protested that they hadn’t been, nor had she been permitted to call her husband, there was the routine “shut-up-and-sign,” which she did, fearing a worse outcome if she continued to refuse.

Once they had her “confession” in hand, they started up the van and drove her to jail (the Commission may be the “government” but as of last year, the über government ordered them not to detain these offenders very long). There, the whole thing recommenced:

“The next thing I saw from the window was that we were approaching a place with a sign written on the outside: Malaz Prison,” she said.

Inside the prison, Yara recounts being taken to a cell with a one-way mirror. On the other side was a sheikh.

“I could not see him because there was a dark window,” she said, adding that each time she paused he would reprimand her, telling her what she did was wrong. “He kept on telling me this is not allowed.”

Yara told the sheikh that her husband knew where she was and what she was doing. He then started writing a report. Another pre-written confession was fingerprinted, she said. She pleaded with prison authorities to contact her husband.

“They would not let me contact my husband,” she said. “I told them… please… my husband will have a heart attack if he does not know what has happened to me.”

She was not given a phone to call her husband. She was not given access to a lawyer. “They stripped me,” she said. “They checked that I had nothing with me and threw me in the cell with all the others.”

Meanwhile, Yara’s husband Hatim, an executive director of a prominent company, was in Jeddah when he received a phone call. “My friend contacted me and told me that the commission had captured my wife,” he said.

He booked the next flight to Riyadh and, after some strings were pulled, Yara was out of jail.

Here’s her husband’s take on the experience:

“I look at this as if she had been kidnapped by thugs,” said Hatim. “There’s really nothing else to it … I know this has nothing to do with the country, but these (people) are thugs. Unfortunately, they told her that they are ‘the government’ so she could not resist.”

That’s where you’re wrong, husband Hatim. You have the “thug” part right, but this has everything to do with your country. These men are law-enforcing thugs, and your wife broke the law by having coffee in public with a male colleague. Your problem is indeed your country, where the spirit of the law exists in a sea of whimsy and the letter of the law often kills innocent people.

Yara’s colleague is a Syrian national and a devout Muslim. He’s still in custody – probably just to make the Syrians beg.

Saudi Arabia: a nightmare not even Kafka could have devised.

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The thing I found most touching about this story is Yara’s heartfelt recollection of her biggest concern:

“They would not let me contact my husband,” she said. “I told them… please… my husband will have a heart attack if he does not know what has happened to me.”

Good marriages are the same the world over.

Hat tip: TB

8 thoughts on “Saudi Arabia’s Religious Police Pounce in Starbucks

  1. Good marriages are the same the world over…

    Yes, it’s a wonderful thing to see that.

    Unfortunately, the ideology they live under does nothing to facilitate the making of happy marriages – quite the contrary.

  2. With all the international business being conducted in the Middle East, why hasn’t this sort of thing happened to someone from a Western nation?

    While I sympathize with the plight of this woman, the reality is that most will just shrug and ignore it as endemic to Middle Eastern culture. That is, until an international female executive is subjected to this.

    Then there will be howls of anger, threatened boycotts, etc.

    – Sodra

  3. “..Yara, a petite 40-year-old woman..”

    “..Yara, who has been married for 27 years..”

    Hmmm… more angles of middle eastern “culture” in this story than can be covered in one blog post.

  4. I am still having a hard time mitigating the idea: you were caught with a man in a public place drinking coffee. Come with another man to a isolated place so we can violate your personal effects, strip you, and leer at you, brainwash you while a bearded man looks at you through a mirror and pleasures himself. The Saud’s are clearly a bunch of sick-minded perverts. And a government that is so weak that they are powerless to confront these cowards… these perpetrators of gender apartheid, is clearly a useless government when it comes to representing the values of freedom and democracy abroad. Grow a spine or stay home. Energy independence now!

  5. Regarding “Energy independence now!”

    I agree.

    I proposed this as a resolution at my Republican Caucus tonight.

    It was voted down, and rather harshly.

    I discussed with the most vocal critic after the caucus, regarding the threat of Islam. He was absolutely clueless about Islam, Jihad, and the threat we face. He simply could not conceive of Islam taking over America.

    We have a huge amount of educating of the public to do. I intend to form an ACT! For America (Brigitte Gabriel’s grassroots organization) Chapter soon. I hope each of you gentle readers consider the same.

  6. You could have unlimited electrical power tomorrow,all that is required is a deep bore hole/water and a steam powered generator.Unfortunately there are unbelievable profits to be made from the oil business which prevents its application.From unlimited electrical power which can be implemented anywhere in the world,electrically power cars would become very attractive and cost next to nothing to run,not to mention the boost that it would give our industrial processes,butyou can not have it because the builderburgers want to continue to exploit every human being in the world.GEO-THERMAL POWER.

  7. Baron,
    The Times Online is reporting that this woman arrested at Starbucks was an American businesswoman:

    Religious police…

    Interesting to see the reaction to this. And very interesting that the Arab News reported her as Saudi.

    – Sodra

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