Saudi Arabia going soft on closing shops for prayer? It’s a slippery slope…

Saudi Arabia’s religious police are considering relaxing the kingdom’s strict rules on closing shops and businesses during Muslim prayer times.

Sheikh Abdulatif al-Sheikh, a moderate cleric appointed by King Abdullah last year to head the religious police, said in an interview that shops don’t need more than 20 to 25 minutes to shut for daily prayers and that Muslims could even pray at their places of work, rather than at mosques, to save time and money for businesses.

“At the moment you have some places that close for 45 minutes for each prayer, which impacts both the businesses and the customers.… We want to regulate the closing timings to change this practice,” Mr. Sheikh said. “We are looking at having certain closing timings for each city and, if needed, the workers can pray where they work in a group rather than spending more time walking to their nearest mosque.”

Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, follows an ultra-puritan interpretation of the religion. The responsibilities of its religious police, also known as the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, or Hia’a in Arabic, include ensuring strict gender segregation and restrained public behavior. The Hia’a has often been criticized for the strong-arm enforcement tactics of some of its members.

Critics have called on the religious police to relax rules on businesses during prayer times and to exempt drugstores and gas stations from closing. Mr. Sheikh said that the force doesn’t see a need to change the rules for these specific types of businesses.