- The Washington Times - Monday, December 22, 2003

JIDDA, Saudi Arabia — Saudi Arabia’s deeply conservative Islamic society is coming to terms with a crime wave ushered in by a population boom, rapid social change, increased unemployment and a reduction in oil revenue.

A report this year by the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency said crime among young jobless Saudis rose 320 percent from 1990 to 1996 and is expected to increase by an additional 136 percent by 2005.

Although official crime and unemployment statistics are not available, the number of jobless Saudis is estimated to be as high as 35 percent, and the al-Riyadh daily newspaper has reported that in 1999, courts dealt with 616 murder cases.

The highest number of murders was in Mecca, Islam’s holiest city.

“People here are totally confused. They don’t understand how crime can keep rising in this Muslim society,” the newspaper said in a two-page special on crime.

The kingdom, known for being virtually crime-free, still applies a strict form of Shariah law, which includes public beheading for murder, drug trafficking, rape and adultery — and thieves sometimes having their hands amputated.

An estimated 48 persons were beheaded last year, and more than 50 have been beheaded this year.

However, there is an increasing recognition that the death penalty is not working as a deterrent. And a wider debate in the Saudi media about the social causes of crime has been given impetus by what commentators agree is a crime wave, especially in the major urban centers.

The days when Saudis could leave their homes unlocked, even when they went on vacation, are long gone. Thieves have taken to robbing whole apartments, after brazenly parking a van in the street outside.

Police recently arrested a Saudi man, based on fingerprint evidence, who had burgled at least 25 houses in the capital.

Students at King Saud University, also in the capital, complain that they are unable to leave their cars in the parking lot for fear of finding them stripped of any valuables after classes have finished.

Riyadh police say that in the past three years, they have recorded more than 13,000 serious robberies.

Reporting on violent crime, and linking it to poverty and other kinds of social deprivation, traditionally has been taboo in this Islamic state, but most of the local dailies now have crime pages.

A highly publicized visit by de facto ruler Crown Prince Abdullah, a reformer, to a slum in a Riyadh suburb in January helped put the spotlight squarely on social deprivation.

The mass-circulation Okaz Arabic-language daily subsequently ran a frank three-part series on Kerantina, a slum to the south of Jidda, from which undercover journalists reported that prostitution, drug abuse and alcohol smuggling are rife.

The whole area, the article said, becomes a police no-go area after dark.

A surgeon and emergency-room doctor at King Fahd General Hospital in Jidda said that two years ago, he saw one or two shooting incidents each month, most of which were accidents. “But now I [am] seeing the victims of up to seven stabbings and shootings a week.”

Drug raids now are so common that they no longer are guaranteed to make the front page.

The number of drug smugglers, dealers and users in the kingdom has increased sharply, from 4,279 in 1986 to 17,199 in 2001, according to the latest published statistics.

These figures probably only reveal the tip of the iceberg. At least three districts of Riyadh — Batha, Olaya and Badia — are safe havens for alcohol and drug smugglers, as is the Kerantina district of Jidda, the main city in the al-Jouf region on the Iraqi border, Sakaka, and Jizan, near the Saudi-Yemeni border in the south.

Heroin, hashish and amphetamines are the most commonly used drugs in Saudi Arabia, according to Maj. Gen. Sultan al-Harithi, director-general of the country’s antinarcotics department.

But in an interview with a Saudi daily this year, he said, drugs are considered “a phenomenon, not a menace.”

“There are officers responsible for curing and rehabilitating the addicts. We have three specialist hospitals in Riyadh, Jidda and Dammam to treat the addicts and reintegrate them back into mainstream society.

“They will never be questioned or punished, since they are the victims of a malady,” he said.

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