Some functions, such as arrests and interrogations, will be handed over to other state bodies, Abdul Latif Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh told al-Hayat daily.

The force is supposed to police dress codes and religious observance.

But there has been growing anger among Saudis at examples of aggressive behaviour by the "mutawa".

In recent months, a mobile phone clip of a religious policeman ordering a young woman to leave a mall because of her make-up went viral.

Many Saudis also blamed the mutawa for causing a fatal car crash when they chased a man who had refused to turn his radio down.

It's a sign of the greater accountability of Saudi institutions in recent years that the head of the religious police should be holding interviews in the local media to answer public concerns.

Abdul Latif Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh took over from his hardline predecessor earlier this year with the aim of softening the harsh reputation of the organisation, known officially as the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice or more simply, the "mutawa".