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Saudi Arabia-Law Enforcement

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Saudi Arabia Index

In the limited public security structure inherited from the Ottoman Empire, police work was done informally and justice was administered by local or tribal authorities. Gradually, during the reign of Abd al Aziz, modern organs of government were introduced and became responsible for maintaining public order. By royal decree in 1950, Abd al Aziz created a general directorate to supervise all police functions in the kingdom, and a year later he established the Ministry of Interior, which has since been in charge of police matters. Subordinate to the Ministry of Interior general directorates charged with maintaining internal security included Public Security, Investigation, Coast Guard, and Special Security. The offices of the deputy ministers for administration, national security affairs, and immigration and naturalization, and the Internal Security Forces College were all on the same organizational level as the four general directorates. Governors of the amirates reported directly to the minister of interior (see fig. 8).

In return for their loyalty and the maintenance of peace and order in the tribal areas, the king provided subsidies to the shaykhs and a minimum of government interference in tribal affairs. Under this system, offenses and breaches of the peace were punished by the responsible shaykh. The national guard acted as a support force to quell disturbances or restore order if tribal authority could not.

The public security forces, particularly the centralized Public Security Police, could also get emergency support from the national guard or, in extremis, from the regular armed forces. The Public Security Police, recruited from all areas of the country, maintained police directorates at provincial and local levels. The director general for public security retained responsibility for police units but, in practice, provincial governors exercised considerable autonomy. Provincial governors were frequently senior amirs of the Al Saud.

Since the mid-1960s, a major effort has been made to modernize the police forces. During the 1970s, quantities of new vehicles and radio communications equipment enabled police directorates to operate sophisticated mobile units, especially in the principal cities. Helicopters were also acquired for use in urban areas. Police uniforms were similar to the khaki and olive drab worn by the army except for the distinctive red beret. Policemen usually wore sidearms while on duty.

Dealings with the security forces were often a source of difficulty for foreigners in the kingdom. Ordinary policemen could be impatient with those who did not speak Arabic and were often illiterate. Darker-skinned workers were said to be treated more roughly than Europeans or North Americans. Detentions of everyone connected with a serious crime or accident could result until the police investigated matters.

The police security forces were divided into regular police and special investigative police of the General Directorate of Investigation (GDI), commonly called the mubahith (secret police). The GDI conducted criminal investigations in addition to performing the domestic security and counterintelligence functions of the Ministry of Interior. The Directorate of Intelligence, which reported directly to the king, was responsible for intelligence collection and analysis and the coordination of intelligence tasks and reporting by all intelligence agencies, including those of the Ministry of Defense and Aviation and the national guard.

An important feature of domestic security was the Ministry of Interior's centralized computer system at the National Information Center in Riyadh. The computer network, linking 1,100 terminals, maintained records on citizens' identity numbers and passports, foreigners' residence and work permits, hajj visas, vehicle registrations, and criminal records. Reports from agents and from the large number of informants employed by the security services were also entered. Officials of the Directorate of Intelligence had authority to carry out wiretaps and mail surveillance.

The Special Security Force was the Saudi equivalent of a special weapons assault team (SWAT), such as had been incorporated into police forces in various parts of the world. Reporting directly to the minister of interior, the force was organized after the poor performance of the national guard during the revolt at the Grand Mosque at Mecca in 1979. The force was equipped with UR-416 armored vehicles from West Germany and nonlethal chemical weapons. According to The Military Balance, the force had a personnel strength of 500 in 1992, although estimates from other sources have ranged much higher. It was reported in 1990 that the antiterrorism unit of the Special Security Force was being disbanded and its German training staff repatriated.

The strength of the Coast Guard was 4,500 as of 1992 and of the Frontier Force 10,500, according to The Military Balance. The Frontier Force patrolled land borders and carried out customs inspections. The Coast Guard deployed its units from ports along the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea with a primary mission to prevent smuggling. Among its varied inventory of craft, the largest were four 210-ton offshore patrol craft acquired from West Germany in 1989. Two were based at Jiddah and two at Ad Dammam. The Coast Guard also had about thirty large patrol craft, 135 inshore patrol craft, and sixteen British-built Hovercraft.

An unusual, if not unique, internal security force in Saudi Arabia was the autonomous and highly visible religious police, or mutawwiin (see Glossary). Organized under the authority of the king in conjunction with the ulama, the mutawwiin were charged with ensuring compliance with the puritanical precepts of Wahhabism. A nationwide organization known in English as the Committees for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (also seen as Committees for Public Morality), the mutawwiin earned a reputation for fanaticism and brutality that had become an embarrassment, but the Al Saud has seemingly been reluctant to confront the ulama in a showdown. Primarily, the mutawwiin enforced public observance of such religious requirements as the five daily prayers, fasting during Ramadan, the modesty of women's dress, and the proscriptions against the use of alcohol (see Wahhabi Theology , ch. 2).

Once an important instrument of Abd al Aziz for upholding standards of public behavior, the ultraconservatism of the mutawwiin had become an anachronism, contrasting with the modernization processes working in other sectors of society. The government has occasionally disciplined overzealous mutawwiin, following complaints from a foreign government over treatment of its nationals. After a series of raids on rich and influential Saudis in 1990, the government appointed a new and more compliant leader of the religious police.

The religious police had the legal right to detain suspects for twenty-four hours before turning them over to the regular police and were known to have flogged detainees to elicit confessions. They often used switch-like sticks to beat those perceived to be in violation of religious laws. Foreign workers, including some from the United States, have been targets of harassment and raids. According to one estimate, there were about 20,000 mutawwiin in 1990. Most mutawwiin wore the traditional white thaub, were salaried, and were regarded as government employees. Some incidents of harassment have been attributed to self-appointed vigilantes outside the regular religious police hierarchy.

Data as of December 1992

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