Head of Saudi morals police eases tone on cinema

RIYADH (Reuters) - The head of Saudi Arabia’s religious police has eased his criticism of a return of cinema to the conservative Muslim country saying he saw no harm in it as long as what is shown complies with Islam.

Cinema made a low-key return in the Islamic kingdom after a three decade ban, but a sharp reaction by Ibrahim al-Ghaith, the religious police chief, showed efforts to relax tough religious laws face tough opposition.

But Ghaith, the kingdom’s second-most influential cleric, changed his tone in favor of the moviegoing revival.

“We are not against having cinema if it shows the good and does not violate Islamic law,” al-Hayat newspaper quoted him on Sunday as saying.

It was unclear why Ghaith had apparently changed his approach and the religious police were not available for comment.

A locally produced comedy, “Menahi,” premiered in two cultural centers in Jeddah and Taif this month before mixed-gender audiences, earlier a taboo in Saudi Arabia whose strict Islamic rules ban unrelated men and women from mixing.

Ghaith, who heads the morals police -- called the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice -- demanded in remarks carried on Saturday by Saudi newspapers that cinema remains banned, calling it an evil the kingdom could do without.

“We have enough evil already,” he was quoted as saying.

“Menahi,” produced by billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal’s media company Rotana, shows the comic escapades of a naive farmer earlier played on television by popular Saudi actor Fayez al-Maliki.

The film has attracted such large crowds that the film had to be played eight times a day over a 10-day period, the organizers said. It had to be stopped in Taif due to overcrowding in the hall, Rotana spokesman Ibrahim Badi said.

Showing the film was the latest attempt to introduce reforms by King Abdullah, who has said the world’s largest oil exporter cannot stand still while the world changes around it.

Political analysts say Alwaleed could not have gone ahead without the blessing of royals with key decision-making roles.

The kingdom’s Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul-Aziz Al al-Shaikh has not commented on the issue.

Ghaith’s religious police have wide powers to search for alcohol, drugs and prostitution, ensure shops are closed during prayer and maintain a strict system of sexual segregation in Saudi society, where women are even banned from driving.

Writing by Souhail Karam; editing by Ralph Boulton