Today I went to a major mall here in Riyadh to pick up an abaya I had ordered and instead got a story. The abaya was supposed to be ready yesterday but when I got to the shop there was an off vibe to it. The abayas on the racks were plain. The creative cuts and colors that had attracted me just four days ago to make a spontaneous purchase were nowhere to be seen. And as soon as the sales clerk saw me he said um Sulaiman, I wish you had left a number so I could have saved you a trip. It turns out that Wednesday Feb 4th a huge abaya raid was undertaken all across Riyadh. They went around in groups of three; a muttawa Vice police escorted by a Riyadh Principality employee and a police officer. At the mall I went to, they first headed to the shop I mentioned above and the unlucky sales clerk had a customer at the time who was sitting on an armchair in the shop and discussing an abaya that she wanted made. The first thing the muttawa did was express shock and disgust that the shop allowed women to sit. Then he looked at the abaya order that the clerk was filling out and told the lady off for ordering a 750 riyal abaya. And then he demanded that the clerk show him a 750 riyal abaya. The clerk pointed at an abaya with cuffs decorated with crystals and the muttawa grabbed it off the rack and stuffed it into one of his big trash bags. Then he went through all the racks and grabbed anything that looked “worldy” and decorative and stuffed them all in his bags. Before leaving, the muttawa also took the sale clerk’s residency card and ordered him to remove the chairs and a little mirror nook that was there for women to try on the abayas. (They take the residency card so that the Saudi sponsor would have to come to them and they could give him a little talking to as well.) Meanwhile word got around and the other abaya shops in the mall hurriedly locked up and their clerks ran off before the raid got to them. The raid group went all around the mall getting the shop numbers of all the abaya shops even though they were closed. So that they could come back tomorrow and they did. Not only that, but similar raid groups went all over Riyadh, not only raiding shops but also factories and warehouses. Abaya shopkeepers called and warned each other and because they knew the shops and factories were unsafe they took the abayas home. The last raid was Friday evening and it has been quiet since then.
The sales clerk that I had the little conversation with has been selling abayas in Saudi Arabia for the past 13 years and he told me that a few years ago the vice police went as far as to jail him for four days just because he was doing his job. He told me that his shop’s abaya factory lost something between 50 to 60 thousand riyals from the raids this weekend! He also said that it had been a few years since the last time that the vice police would actually confiscate decorated abayas. The past few years all they did was give something like warning tickets to all the shops that were selling decorative abayas. The other two accompanying the muttawa, the police officer and the principality employee, mostly just stood by while the Vice cop did his job. They were there only to show that the raid was official and not just a thing a muttawa did on a whim.
Update Feb 12th
The raids did not stop and now the story is confirmed. If you go to any mall in Riyadh for an abaya, you won’t be able to find anything displayed except the extreme plain tent style. Some shops were even closed because the mutawas found that all their abayas are decorative. One shop specialized in fancy abayas lost an estimate of 900,000 riyals. Local newspapers to my knowledge have not picked this up. I wish they would.