The Mutaween are religious police who enforce the Islamic code of law known as Sharia in Saudi Arabia. Other religious police forces are also sometimes referred to as Mutaween, especially in Muslim countries. The actions of this organization are sometimes viewed as extremely controversial, as the Mutaween have far-reaching authorities over citizens and visitors in Saudi Arabia, a country with very traditional and conservative religious values.
This law enforcement agency is part of a larger government organization called the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. Members of the Mutaween patrol the streets of Saudi Arabia, often with an official police escort, looking for violations of Islamic law. They have the authority to arrest people for violations, and they can order floggings, imprisonment, and public humiliation as punishments.
Among other things, the Mutaween look for women who are not dressed in accordance with the Sharia, people of the opposite sex fraternizing, signs of homosexual behavior, violations of Muslim dietary laws, and other signs of “un-Islamic behavior” such as listening to rock music. These Saudi Arabian police can confiscate materials which they think are inappropriate, ranging from Western movies to alcohol, and many people understandably fear the sharp eyes of the Mutaween.
The role of the Mutaween in Saudi Arabia has been sharply criticized by people all over the world, including Muslims. Some people argue with the Saudi Arabian government's interpretation of the Sharia, pointing out that Muslim religious law is extremely complex and that some of the positions of the Saudi Arabian government may be indefensible. Women in particular have chafed against the extremely conservative interpretation of the Sharia in Saudi Arabia, and some have fought back with acts of defiance like not wearing the veil.
If you plan to travel in Saudi Arabia, you should be aware that you could be approached by the Mutaween if you engage in behavior which they deem unacceptable, and you run the risk of deportation or imprisonment. Saudi Arabia does relax certain rules for non-Muslim visitors, but the nation has extremely conservative laws about things like drug use and public behavior. Although visitors may disagree with Saudi Arabia's interpretation of the Sharia, complying with the Mutaween is highly advised as long as you are a guest and especially if you visit a holy site.