When a leading figure in the Saudi advertising sector told me last summer that the Saudi Religious Police approached him for 'corporate re-branding' suggestions, I couldn't help but brush away the idea as nonsense.
I wrongfully assumed that the 'Haya't al Amr Bil Ma'rouf wa Al Nahi an Al Munkar' (The Committee of Promoting Virtue and the Prevention of Vice) would never resort to the 'dark art' of advertising - a matter which incorporates 'tricking consumers into buying' as used by the likes of Leo Burnett and David Ogilvy in promoting cereals and beers.
However, though I know that my source didn't end up working on the re-branding, it slowly became evident that there are serious attempts to change the perception that people have of the 'Men of Hesbah': another term used to describe the pious soldiers of God who are known to roam the streets looking for shop-keepers who don't shut down during prayer times, guys and girls on the dating scene or indecent attire. Other tasks include: witch hunts, cracking down on prostitution rings and alcohol traffickers or local manufacturers.
Not only that, but it seems the Committee have used a modern integrated marketing communication approach, i.e. using several marketing tools around the same concept: such as personal selling, PR and everyone's favourite gimmick these days: social networking.
In November 2008, there was a newspaper story about a few officers from the Committee (with their distinctive beards and short robes) raided a popular bowling alley in the coastal city of Jeddah.
The raid was headed by non-other than the Religious Police's Chief himself -- Shaikh Ali Bin Mohammad Al Hayyan. Under normal circumstances, this would have been due to a major operation to capture someone committing a serious religious offence for instance.
(Shaikh Al Hayyan at the bowling arena - Al Watan Newspaper photo)
However, it turned out that Shaikh Al Hayyan only wanted to challenge a group of Jeddah's finest to a game in bowling, possibly because of his personal enjoyment of the sport, though the coincidental existence of a photographer on location and the appearance of the story in the press shortly after that makes one believe that this may have been a planned PR stunt.
Also, throughout last year there were a significant number of stories appearing in local Saudi press on members of the Committee receiving training and attending workshops in a number of fields, ranging from 'dealing with the media', 'on field dealing with women' and other topics.
The Religious Police also gained a lot of support on social media; it has promotional videos on Youtube, and a number of fan clubs on Facebook, though it also has a number of hate-clubs as well.
However, the big 'reveal' came at the recent Riyadh Book Fair (an annual event which the local intellectual scene, journalists and academics eagerly await every year) where the Religious Police displayed their all-new vice-busting vehicles: white Suburbans with a modern looking blue triangle on the sides.
(The Committee's re-branding includes a new fleet of vice-busting vehicles - Alriyadh Newspaper photo)
To be honest, I have to say hats-off to the Committee for the quick turnaround in their approach. To be honest, I have always been amazed at the efficiency and effectiveness of the' Men in Beards'.
Having lived in Saudi Arabia and been aware of how slow the decision-making process on all levels usually is; the one body that always defied the norm was the Committee of Promoting Virtue and Prevention of Vice.
In fact, they have always been an example of great communication, teamwork and results-driven management.
Their men are dedicated, have a joint goal and most importantly: have motivation.
Motivation, though in this case is heavenly, is a key factor which most Saudi and Arab organizations lack -- in fact it is very common for managers who are places as a result of their connections rather than competence to de-motivate talented and hardworking employees.
However, back to the Religious Police - I believe they will soon realize that as any PR guru would say: spinning can only get you so far.
The Committee is probably going through all these 'outreach' exercises because they feel they are loosing popularity; mainly because of the sometimes over-zealous and 'un-carefully thought through' practices of many of its officers.
A lot of Saudis believe that the Committee exists for a good cause -- and that their actions are meant to be noble, while others think they should be abolished and that such interference in people's daily lives should not be tolerated.
There is no sign of the later scenario happening at all as the religious police remain a fact of life in Saudi Arabia, though the government has previously limited the Committee's powers.
Yet, I believe that if they are to be kept; then a serious accountability act should be implemented, to make sure no member of the Religious Police would ever abuse the power he is given in the name of God.
The Committee still needs to answer to the large number of people they have caused tremendous and sometimes irreparable damage to; for no justified reason.
Let us not forget, It was only 8 years ago that the Committee of the Promotion of Vitue and Prevention of Vice were accused of preventing unrelated men from rescuing 14 school girls trapped in a burning building in the Holy City of Mecca, all of which died in that fire.
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