Saudi morality police may relax rules on prayer times: paper

RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia's morality police may relax the kingdom's strict rules on closing shops and businesses for prayer five times a day, the force's head Sheikh Abdulatif Al al-Sheikh was quoted as saying by local press on Wednesday.

All shops in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam and the world's top oil exporter, are supposed to shut for half an hour during the daily Muslim prayers, which take place at dawn, midday, mid afternoon, sunset and evening.

However, Al al-Sheikh, a moderate appointed to the post a year ago, said he did not think they needed to close for such a long period, in comments on television carried in the English-language daily Arab News, which is owned by a leading prince.

Al al-Sheikh added that Muslim shop staff could pray at their places of work rather than having to spend time walking to the mosque and back.

The comments are the latest sign of Al al-Sheikh's attempts to improve the image of the morality police, officially known as the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.

King Abdullah appointed him a year ago after a clip went viral on YouTube showing a morality police patrol harassing a family in a shopping mall.

The organization enforces the kingdom's rigid interpretation of Islamic law, including strict gender segregation, modest dress and restrained public behavior.

In 2002 it triggered international outrage when its officers prevented schoolgirls leaving a burning building because they were not wearing veils, leading to several deaths.

Its officers have also been accused inside Saudi Arabia of taking the law into their own hands.

"I will continue with the most moderate and tolerant view to lead this organization," he was quoted as saying by Arab News.

King Abdullah is praised by his supporters as having introduced cautious social and economic reforms designed to modernize ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia without causing social unrest.

Some of the monarch's critics say these changes merely provide an illusion of reform while the political system in which the ruling family shares power with conservative Muslim clerics, remains unaltered.

(Reporting By Angus McDowall; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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