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Saudi officials put the squeeze on Valentine's Day

Saudi Arabia's religious police have banned anything related to the lovers holiday and warned store owners not to sell such merchandise. But many know how to circumvent the ban.

February 13, 2010|By Meris Lutz

Reporting from Beirut — It isn't often that cynical singles and religious police find themselves on the same side, but in Saudi Arabia they are standing united against a common threat: Valentine's Day.

Saudi Arabia's religious enforcers, backed by the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, are doing their annual purge of anything Valentine-related: flowers, gifts, candy -- even the color red.

The broader region, however, is not so sure. And Saudis themselves are far from unanimous.

Valentine's Day as a commercial phenomenon has gone global, and the Arab world is no exception.

From Damascus to Casablanca, restaurants, retailers, and hotels eagerly promote holiday deals. Pop stars charge hundreds of dollars for special performances. Doily hearts and heart-shaped boxes of chocolates are nearly inescapable.

A spokesman for the Saudi virtue commission, Sheik Ali Qarni, defended the ban on celebrating Valentine's Day on the grounds that Muslims know the true meaning of love -- the love of God -- and behave accordingly throughout the year.

"Muslims are people of love, as evidenced by the fact that this word appears in [the Koran] 83 times," Qarni told the newspaper Al Watan.

The newspaper said Valentine's Day is outlawed based on a fatwa against "pagan holidays."

The commission ran ads this week warning shop owners against selling any merchandise related to Valentine's Day, which is Sunday.

Another newspaper, Al Riyadh, ran articles with headlines such as, "A fifth of adults prefer to spend Valentine's Day with their pets instead of their partners," and "Valentine's Day flavored with cocaine in the Netherlands this year."

Yet the ban has also created a boon for enterprising owners of flower and gift shops who don't mind taking a risk to make a profit. Al Watan interviewed a florist in Dammam who said the price of red roses had risen from about $1.30 apiece to nearly $8.

Al Watan readers left more than 200 comments about Valentine's Day.

Muhammad Issa Dabesh praised the commission's efforts against the "Westernization" of Saudi Arabia.

But a writer who identified himself only as "Civilized" said the commission should be abolished because it is "incompatible with freedom and human rights."

Prominent Saudi blogger Ahmed Al-Omran, whose website is saudijeans.org, suggested that Western news media are taking the ban more seriously than the Saudis themselves.

"Those who want to celebrate Valentine's Day find their way around the ban, and those who think it's haram [forbidden] don't celebrate it," he wrote in an e-mail to The Times. It's "as easy as that."

Lutz is a special correspondent

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