A view of a theocracy: Saudi Arabia (and the US?)

A view of a theocracy: Saudi Arabia (and the US?) October 14, 2020

I lived in the “theocracy” of Saudi Arabia for ten years – here is a glimpse into the Magic Kingdom, and a lesson we can learn from it, if we’re willing to open our eyes.

My husband was born in a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, and as a stateless family, his parents decided to take advantage of the opportunity to move to Saudi Arabia in 1967, just to get out from under occupation. Much of his family is in Saudi Arabia.

He came to the States for his Masters Degree. That’s when we met.

For five years in the 1980s, my husband and I lived in Saudi; we went back again in 2000 with our 4 children (I’m sure I’ll talk about that very rich experience one of these days – you should subscribe to my newsletter so you don’t miss it!)

The muttawa (moo-TA-wa)

Saudi Arabia is unique in many ways, not the least of which is the existence of (I am not making this up) the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. These gentlemen, known locally as the “muttawa,” or religious police, would roam the streets and shops, looking for deviance of any type.

The muttawa would watch for derelict young men hot rodding, or spraying graffiti, or shoplifting. They have been known to herd people out of the shops and into the mosques at prayer time.

But mostly, the muttawa loved, I mean loved, to watch for “lady problems”: young women who looked flirty or had on too much makeup or perfume; women showing a little too much ankle (any ankle, really); women smoking in public; and worst of all, women who seemed to be meeting men to whom they were not related. Don’t get your knickers in a twist—the women weren’t the only ones who got in trouble. If a woman was deemed “out of control,” her mahram (male relative who is in charge of her) got in trouble too for letting her off the leash. (Now you can get your knickers in a twist.)

Where did these guys come from?

Why, in the 21st century, would the muttawa exist? They sound like a relic from ancient times, but actually the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice was created after a group of ultra-conservative Saudi rebels tried to execute a coup against the royal family, believing it was corrupt and too Westernized.

The rebels’ hope was to create a theocracy in preparation for the end of the world, which they believed was imminent.

The coup had as its goals:

  • return to the original ways of Islam
  • repudiation of the West and its accoutrement (like television and women in the workplace)
  • expulsion of non-Muslims (as a developing country, Saudi Arabia employed many foreigners)

The coup attempt failed, but the ruling family realized they needed to make some changes (ya think?). Apparently they decided that more religion was what the kingdom needed. So the king invited the ultra-conservatives – the Wahhabi faction – to basically run the country, ultra-conservative-style.

1960s Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Now, you need to understand that before 1979, Saudi Arabia was a pretty open culture. I’m serious. Women had legs. Check out the photo to the left. Legs, arms, cleavage, the works.

Then, thanks to a few hundred radicals, the Muttawa Era began. It took a while to get things rolling, but soon, television no longer had female entertainment. Movie theatres closed.

I was there when the VCR came along, and with it, video rental stores. Then one day, just like that, they were gone.

Cellphones with cameras came along, and soon, they were confiscated.

Later, satellite dishes came and went. (However, as I discovered during a stint tutoring the Crown Prince’s granddaughter, the royal family still enjoyed all of the goodies that were forbidden to their people. #jerryfalwelljr)

Have you been paying attention?  Time for a pop quiz:


  1. isolationism
  2. theocracy
  3. Westernization

That’s correct: Westernization.


  1. because Saudi Arabia was too hot and humid
  2. because Saudi Arabia was selling oil too cheap
  3. because Saudi Arabia was too worldly

That’s correct! Saudi Arabia was, in the conservatives’ opinion, too worldly. They wanted all Westerners and their modern influence out. The conservatives hit the jackpot when the royal family gave them carte blanche to oversee virtue and vice.

The Saudi royal family got more than they bargained for. In many ways, Saudi Arabia has been going backwards ever since, at the wishes of conservative, neurotic Alpha males, hung up on their own discomfort with the world.

Simple abaya

I saw it happen. When in 1985 I arrived in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia’s biggest city, I could wear a knee-length skirt, and a sweater or shawl over my bare shoulders when I went out (with my husband, because women couldn’t drive). Soon after my arrival, the muttawa began to gain control.

By 1990, all women had to wear an abaya (loose-fitting, floor-length cape or robe) when in public. By 2000, all women covered their hair. Today, most also cover their faces. Because, conservative religion.

Interestingly enough, the muttawa are no longer active. They’re not needed because the people are fully indoctrinated (not everyone, but close enough). My husband believes that it will take generations for the society to recover from the Muttawa Era.

Make America Godly Again?

No doubt, the Wahhabis and their accomplices, the muttawa, believed on some level that they were doing God’s work – coercing holiness, demanding virtue, exterminating vice. But is that really what they accomplished?

Because, does godliness flourish in the absence of choices, or in making godly choices

Is there really such a thing as a true theocracy? Any attempt to create a society where God is in charge will involve human (usually male) mediators. You can’t run a country according to “the Bible” – only according to somebody’s interpretation of the Bible.

We in the US can fill the Supreme Court with conservative Christians, and vote in “God’s candidates” (defined as “pro-life” or “pro-Israel”) to the White House and Congress. Then what?

Let’s not  be naive here, Christians.

What we’ll end up with is another Saudi Arabia: these “leaders” will be the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. They will decide on the definition of holiness and impose it on the rest of us.

Saudi Arabia under the muttawa, and a conservative Christian America, will not bring about holiness because they’re…I’m gonna say it: Pharisaical.

Jesus made it clear that we should live a life of LOVE for God and all people.

One Saudi Arabia in the world is enough. We don’t need two.

FEATURED IMAGE: “camel” by steve phillips is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

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