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New head of Saudi religious police: Volunteers will no longer be allowed

RIYADH - The new head of the Saudi religious police said volunteers will no longer be allowed to serve in the force, in

Cautious reform

Sheikh Abdullatif says volunteers will no longer be allowed to serve, in apparent effort to reduce violations.

an apparent effort to reduce violations, media reports said on Monday.

"From now on there will be no more volunteers" in the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, Sheikh Abdullatif Abdel Aziz al-Sheikh, who was appointed to head the organisation on Friday, was quoted as saying.

"Amongst my priorities in the coming period is to create strong ties between the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice and all social categories," said Sheikh, a moderate member of the country's most powerful religious family.

King Abdullah replaced the organisation's head Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Humain with SheikhAbdullatif.

The monarch, a cautious reformer, had appointed Humain in 2009 to head the "mutaween" which ensures the strict application of the country's ultra-conservative version of Islam, as a step towards reforming it.

Humain hired consultants to restructure the organisation, met local human rights groups and consulted professional image-builders in a broad public relations campaign.

The commission also investigated and punished some out-of-control officers for misbehaviour.

It launched regular training sessions as well, including five-day courses on "skills to deal with witches and sorcerers," and a three-day programme on "skills to deal with tourists."

This came after a number of cases outraged even Saudis and embarrassed the government.

In 2002, the mutaween reportedly prevented firemen from entering an all-girls school that was ablaze because of the segregation-of-sexes policy, and blocked the girls from escaping because they were not wearing the obligatory veil.

Fourteen girls were trampled to death and 50 hurt in a stampede after the fire broke out.

And the arrest of an American businesswoman meeting a man in a Saudi Starbucks sparked a US complaint.

The religious police prevent women from driving, require them to be covered from head to foot in black, ban public entertainment, and force all commerce, from supermarkets to petrol stations, to come to a halt at prayer times, five times a day.

Although they fall under the interior ministry, they operate with great autonomy.

They maintain a close alliance with both the courts -- where all the judges are Islamic clerics -- and the powerful Grand Ulema, the supreme council of religious scholars who define the Islamic rules governing life in the oil-rich Gulf state.

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