Saudi's religious police, the Muttawa, have been instructed to prevent the sale of cats and dogs in order to prevent the spread of Western ideas into the highly Islamic country, Saudi media reported on Friday.
"Some youths have been buying them and parading them in public," said a memo sent from the Municipal Affairs Ministry to Jeddah's city government to explain the ban.
The Muttawa are normally tasked with forcing women to cover themselves, ensuring that men attend mosque prayers and enforcing other Islamic obligations.
Banning the sale of dogs may surprise few in the desert kingdom, since conservative Muslims despise dogs as ritually unclean.
But the cat ban has baffled many. Islamic traditions say that Muhammad, Islam's founder, loved cats - even in one instance letting a cat drink from his ablutions water before he washed himself for prayers.
Pet owning is common in the Arab world, though dogs are rarely kept as pets. Islam traditionally allows Muslims to keep dogs for security and hunting purposes.
Emulation of the 'infidels'
In the past decades, owning dogs or cats has become a fashion statement among Saudis, a Saudi news report said on Saturday.
Showing off a Doberman, pit bull or a fancy breed of feline has become a status symbol.
For religious conservatives, however, the practice is a dangerous immitation of non-Islamic cultures, just like eating fast food, wearing shorts and jeans, or listening to pop music.
Saudi religious leaders say all these practices should be resisted because they undermine traditions and distract people from their religious duties.
“One bad habit spreading among our youths is the acquisition of dogs and showing them off in the streets and malls,” wrote Aleetha al-Jihani in a letter to al-Madina newspaper.
“There's no doubt that such a matter makes one shudder.”
“Then what's the point of dragging a dog behind you? This is blind emulation of the infidels.
Although the religious police have the task of enforcing Saudi Arabia's strict moral code, city authorities in Jedda and Mecca have also been urged to help enforce the ban on pet sales.
“I was shocked when I heard about it,” said Fahd al-Mutairi, who owns 35 pet cats. “What was even more shocking was to hear that the ban came from an authority that has nothing to do with such an issue”
The Saudi government gives the Muttawa wide leeway to enforce any rule they deem necessary to uphold the social order.
The decree has not been enforced yet, according to several pet shop owners and veterinary clinics in Jiddah. It applies only to selling dogs and cats, and there was no sign the Muttawa would confiscate pets.
The decree did not say whether the religious police would try to stop people from appearing in public with their dog or cat - or whether owners would be allowed to sell puppies or kittens born to their pets.
The ban has distressed cat and dog lovers. Some have wondered why the religious police are focusing on this issue when the country has far more important challenges to deal with, such as terrorism and unemployment.
“I was shocked when I heard about it,” said Fahd al-Mutairi, who owns 35 pet cats. “What was even more shocking was to hear that the ban came from an authority that has nothing to do with such an issue.”
“I would understand if it came from the Health Ministry or anybody charged with ensuring pets coming from outside do not carry diseases,” added the 23-year-old flower-shop owner.