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SAUDI ARABIA: Black market for red roses surges with Valentine's Day crackdown

February 12, 2010 |  6:54 am

Saudi val 3 It isn't often that cynical singles and religious police find themselves on the same side, but this Sunday they will stand united against a common threat: Valentine's Day and its ubiquitous trappings.

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

In the week leading up to the holiday, the commission ran ads in the media warning shop owners against selling Valentine's Day merchandise, and the national newspaper Al-Riyadh did its part by highlighting the downside of cupid's day with articles (in Arabic) like "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."

But the ban has also created a boon for enterprising owners of flower and gift shops who don't mind taking a risk for profit. The newspaper Al Watan interviewed one florist in Dammam who said the price of contraband red roses had soared from 5 riyals (about $1.30) to over 30.

The paper went on to say that Valentine's Day is outlawed based on a Fatwa against "pagan holidays."

A spokesman for the commission, Sheikh Ali Qarni, defended the ban on the grounds that Muslims know the true meaning of love -- the love of God -- and behave accordingly throughout the year, and thus have no need for a single occasion to commemorate it.

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

More than 200 comments left by readers, however, revealed mixed reactions to the ban.

Muhammad Issa Dabesh praised the commission's efforts against the "Westernization" of Saudi Arabia and said he hoped the commission be turned into a ministry to better enable it to carry out its duties.

"Civilized" said he or she supported abolishing the commission entirely because it is "incompatible with freedom and human rights."

"If only they would spend their efforts on widows and the poor!" wrote D. Jawahir.

But prominent Saudi blogger Ahmed Omran, who pens Saudi Jeans, was blase, hinting that the Western media take the ban more seriously than 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."

-- Meris Lutz in Beirut

Photo: Religious authorities crack down every Valentine's Day on romantic gifts and flowers. Credit: AFP/Getty Images