RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – Every single man knows: Walking a dog in the park equals sure babe magnet. Saudi Arabia's Islamic religious police, in their zeal to keep the sexes apart, want to make sure the technique doesn't catch on here.
The solution: Ban selling dogs and cats as pets, as well as walking them in public.
The prohibition went into effect on Wednesday in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, and authorities in the city say they will strictly enforce it — unlike previous such bans in the cities of Mecca and Jiddah, which have been ignored and failed to stop sales.
Violators found outside with their pets will have their beloved poodles and other furry companions confiscated by agents of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, the official name of the religious police, tasked with enforcing Saudi Arabia's strict Islamic code.
The commission's general manager, Othman al-Othman, said the ban was ordered because of what he called "the rising of phenomenon of men using cats and dogs to make passes at women and pester families" as well as "violating proper behavior in public squares and malls."
"If a man is caught with a pet, the pet will be immediately confiscated and the man will be forced to sign a document pledging not to repeat the act," al-Othman told the Al-Hayat newspaper. "If he does, he will be referred to authorities."
The Saudi-owned Al-Hayat announced the ban in its Wednesday edition, saying it was ordered by the acting governor of Riyadh province, Prince Sattam, based on an edit from the Council of Senior Islamic Scholars and several religious police reports of pet owners harassing women and families.
Commission authorities often do not formally announce to the public new rules that they intend to implement. Officials from the commission and Riyadh city government could not be reached for comment on Thursday, which is a weekend day in Saudi Arabia. The English-language Arab News reported on the ban on Thursday.
So far, the new prohibition did not appear to have any effect in Riyadh. It's extremely rare, anyway, to see anyone walking a dog — much less carrying a cat in public — in the capital, despite the authorities' claims of flirtatious young men luring girls with their pets in malls.
Salesmen at a couple of Riyadh pet stores on Thursday said they did not receive any official orders from the commission banning the sale of pets. Cats and dogs were still on display.
"I didn't hear of the ban," said Yasser al-Abdullah, a 28-year-old Saudi nurse, who was at one pet store with his 3-month-old collie, Joe.
Al-Abdullah, who also owns an 8-month-old Labrador, said a couple of Western friends had been told to get off the streets by the religious police for walking their dogs.
"I won't allow the commission to take my dogs from me," he said.
The religious police prowl streets and malls throughout the kingdom, ensuring unmarried men and women do not mix, confronting women they feel are not properly covered or urging men to go to prayers.
They also often make attempts to plug the few holes in the strict gender segregation that innovations bring. In 2004, they tried to ban cameras on cell phones, fearing that men and women would exchange pictures of each other — though the prohibition was quickly revoked. Every year, religious police warn against marking Valentine's Day, even trying to prevent people from wearing red clothing on the holiday, which they consider a Western creation that encourages vice.
There was no word whether commission authorities intend to expand the dog and cat ban beyond the capital.
The prohibition may be more of an attempt to curb the owning of pets, which conservative Saudis view as a sign of corrupting Western influence, like the fast food, shorts, jeans and pop music that have become more common in the kingdom.
Pet owning has never been common in the Arab world, though it is increasingly becoming fashionable among the upper class in Saudi Arabia and other countries such as Egypt.
In Islamic tradition, dogs are shunned as unclean and dangerous, though they are kept for hunting and guarding. In large cities around the Middle East, stray dogs often wander the streets and are considered pests.
The ban on cats is more puzzling, since there's no similar disdain for them in Islamic tradition. One of the Prophet Muhammad's closest companions was given the name Abu Huraira, Arabic for "the father of the kitten," because he always carried a kitten around with him and took care of it.
A number of hadiths — traditional stories of the prophet — show Muhammad encouraging people to treat cats well. Once, he let a cat drink from the water that he was going to use for his ablutions before prayers. Another time, Muhammad said a woman who kept a cat locked up without feeding it would go to Hell.
Street cats are also plentiful, and people will often feed them or play with them — but it isn't a widespread custom to keep one in the home, and many cannot afford it.