In the same week that the head of the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority (Sagia) was exhorting French investors in Paris to consider Saudi Arabia as a productive haven for investment, an incident back in his home country involving a British citizen may have created hesitation on the part of many potential investors.
On the sidelines of the recent visit by Saudi Arabia’s crown prince to France, Sagia governor Abdul Latif A. Al Othman said, “Saudi Arabia is among the top countries in the region that are witnessing a revolutionary era in the advancement, transparency and efficiency of e-government services.” He added that the “kingdom is pursuing intensive reforms to position itself as one of the world’s most competitive economies. Certainly, this vision has paved the way for further economic diversification and the expansion of an active private sector”. He further said: “Saudi Arabia is, as a matter of fact, growing in all sectors; the classic energy and services sector, the downstream chemical and other sectors that are deemed of high significance in the kingdom nowadays — such as health care and life science sectors, information technology, transportation and logistics, as well as building materials and engineering and consulting markets. All are witnessing significant growth.”
Now switch scenes to the episode involving the British man back in the Saudi capital of Riyadh. According to published account, Peter Haworth, the British citizen in question, was at a shopping mall with his wife when three members of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (known by the Arabic acronym Haia) began following him until he reached the store’s checkout counter, manned by a Saudi woman. They asked him why he chose that specific counter. He answered back: “My wife is with me.” He then paid for his purchase and was walking out of the mall when a row erupted between him and the Haia members. The Haia members then took pictures of the Briton and his vehicle and he responded by doing the same.
They then approached him and demanded that he hand over his camera, but he refused. He was then physically assaulted. He fell to the ground and as he tried to get up, another Haia member jumped on him. Peter’s Saudi wife got in the midst of the scrimmage and managed to free her husband, all the while trying to protect him from physical assault. Peter and his wife then ran into their car and locked all the doors. But the Haia officers chased them and surrounded their vehicle. They then began banging on the windows asking Peter to step out or they would break the glass. In desperation, Peter rang the police for help and a patrol car arrived within minutes. However, when the police personnel saw the members of the religious police, they left without even approaching the desperate Briton. Peter then called the British Embassy, which immediately sent a diplomatic vehicle and took him and his wife home and stood guard near their house. The escort team left only after it was convinced that the couple was safe.
A short video clip capturing some of the brazenness of the Haia officers went viral on the Saudi social media network. Because of the publicity, it was not long after the incident that Haia formally apologised to the British man and his Saudi wife for the nightmare they endured at the hands of the religious police. The commission also said that the four Haia staff members involved in the incident had been transferred outside Riyadh because of their involvement in the attack and that they had been reassigned to administrative jobs. One of the guilty was a senior officer with Haia.
Many condemned the soft punishment meted out to the guilty Haia members as they felt that it would not serve as a deterrence. Khalaf Al Harbi, a popular Saudi writer — who a year ago had blasted the Haia’s actions in causing the death of two young Saudis while chasing them — said: “A year has hardly passed since the death of two young brothers in Riyadh on our National Day. I wrote an article on this story titled ‘It is the bridge which is to blame’. This is exactly how the story ended. The people who caused the accident were acquitted and the blame was put on the bridge that the two brothers ran into. I do not believe this recent incident will have a different ending. With due respect to the statements made by the Haia chairman and its spokesman, that an investigation committee had been set up to investigate the case, I am sure nothing substantially disciplinary will materialise.”
Other Saudis also echoed similar sentiments and said they were fed up of excesses by Haia staff members and sought abolition of the commission and its members and that the duties be transferred to the police.
Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi sociopolitical commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@talmaeena