No Love for Valentines in Saudi Arabia


RIYADH, Feb 14: True to tradition, Saudi Arabia's religious police are zealously enforcing a ban on Valentine's Day symbols in the austere Muslim kingdom.

But in other Gulf Arab countries, celebrations of the traditional lovers' day are now common and appear to be gaining acceptance.

"We have not been selling red roses for a week and we will not bring in any until Valentine's Day is over," said Alan, a Filipino working at a flower shop in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.

He said a member of the religious police, known as Muttawa, visited the shop a week ago and ordered the florists not to display any red roses in the runup to February 14.

At a gift shop in the city, a salesman said the Muttawa had told him to remove from the shelves any red-colour gifts symbolising the feast of love.

"We also removed red gift boxes so as not to expose ourselves to punishment, which could be to close the shop and arrest staff," said Mohammad Hassanein al-Hawari.

The Muttawa, whose formal name is the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, does not stop at just openly inspecting shops. "Agents" in camouflage clothes check to ensure their orders are heeded, he told AFP.

One member of the religious police, who gave his name only as Abdurrahman, checked out shops lining Prince Sultan Street in Olaya district for anything smacking of Valentine's Day. None was evident.

"The West exports to us habits and feasts which contradict sharia (Islamic law) and wants us to imitate them. We want to make sure that sharia is implemented. We punish anyone who commits or abets a violation," he said.

Saudi Arabia declared the feast named after the Christian patron saint of love a "pagan Christian holiday" through a fatwa (religious edict) issued seven years ago by its grand mufti, Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh.

In neighbouring Kuwait, where liberals and Islamists invariably clash over Valentine's Day, Islamists have raised the tone this year.

The head of the Islamic Sharia College at Kuwait University, Mohammad al-Tabtabai, issued a fatwa stipulating that the feast is banned under Islam, and two Islamist MPs demanded that the government ban Valentine's Day celebrations, which they said promote immorality.

But main supermarkets and flower shops in the Gulf emirate are filled with Valentine's Day paraphernalia, while hotels publish adverts tempting couples to a dinner and a one-night stay at discounted rates.

"I don't know why Islamists want to ban celebrations of Valentine's Day... I don't think marking Valentine's Day violates Islamic teachings," middle-aged Kuwaiti employee Mahmoud Ahmad told AFP as he chose a gift for his wife.

In Bahrain, Islamist protests appear to have been drowned by the increasing popularity of Valentine's Day.

"Last year, we imported 20,000 red roses for Valentine's Day. This year, we increased the quantity to 25,000" due to rising demand, said Varghese Modiyil, manager of one of Manama's flower shops.

"I usually give my wife a bouquet (of red roses) on Valentine's Day ... It's not a celebration in the full sense of the word -- just a gesture to renew our love," confided Nawaf al-Ghanem, a 31-year-old Bahraini bank employee.

Red lingerie and heart-shaped jewellery, cushions and teddy bears, offer a wide choice at one shopping mall in Dubai, the most Western-oriented of the seven emirates making up the United Arab Emirates and where citizens make up only around 20 percent of the population.

Gift shops and jewellers in Qatar were also decked in red, even though the gas-rich Gulf state is not immune to the slanging matches over the occasion.

"It is unfortunate that some shopowners advertise these (Valentine's Day) items and use them to decorate their shops in pursuit of material gain, flouting our norms and violating our religion," a disgruntled Qatari wrote in a letter to the daily Al-Raya.


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