Friday, January 2, 2004

LONDON — Stick-wielding Saudi religious police were raiding toy stores and gift shops in the desert kingdom to seize anything related to the Western holiday season, including flowers, candles, stuffed animals, Barbie dolls and other items considered evil.

The squads of police from the “Authority for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice” are targeting the New Year period, which is considered a non-Muslim festival, in an attempt to eliminate Western corrupting influences.

For Muslims, there are only two holidays a year: Eid al-Fitr (celebration of the breaking of the fast at the end of Ramadan) and Eid al-Adha (three-day feast concluding the annual pilgrimage to Mecca), a police official said.

The police have also announced on their Web site bans on any products with trademarks that resemble a cross, Star of David or Buddha statue.

Just before Christmas they banned any shopkeeper from importing these items and gave shopkeepers three months to clear the items out of their stores.

It was not clear whether Barbie’s longtime companion, Ken, would remain available.

Barbie dolls can be purchased on the black market for 100 Saudi riyals, about $27, or more, says a report by the Cairo-based Middle East News Agency (MENA).

Stick-wielding religious police are a part of life in Saudi Arabia. They enforce women’s dress code, requiring that arms, legs and just about everything else be covered in public. During five daily periods set aside for prayer, they force shops to close and men into mosques.

The zeal of the unit was criticized recently, even within Saudi Arabia, when a girls’ school burned down with the children trapped inside, killing scores.

The religious police had insisted that girls’ schools have bars on all their windows and locked doors to prevent any of them from leaving.

The Middle East region has the most retail outlets for toys — in relation to its population — than any other part of the world. That makes it a prime target for retailers, manufacturers and marketers, says MENA.

Because of a high birth-rate, the countries have one of the youngest populations in the world and doting parents love spending money on children’s clothing, jewelry and toys.

The Middle East toy market is estimated to generate $1 billion annually.

One reason for banning Barbie is, according to Saudi ministry sources, a belief that Jews own the American company that makes them, Mattel.

Jews and Christians are not normally welcome in the kingdom. All potential visitors have to state their religion on their application forms and Christians are forbidden from holding services.

Soon after the Iraq war ended, the United States withdrew the last of its 5,000 military personnel that had been based in Saudi Arabia since the 1991 Gulf war.

The Saudis feared an American presence in the kingdom would stir up more Islamic radicalism.

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