Saudi Arabia has since its birth as a modern nation-state been known for its especially rigid form of Islam, called Wahhabism, which is enforced by its largely independent hardline Sharia courts and feared ‘morality police’ who lurk menacingly on city street corners, ready to mete out corporal punishment the moment Koranic law codes are transgressed, from hand-holding among young couples to women going out without a family chaperone, to drinking long forbidden alcohol.
Yet it has also long been a kingdom of contradictions, known for its hard-partying set of billionaire princes and their lavish private jet/yacht/French Riviera luxury chateau high society jetsetting life-styles. In Saudi society it remains an open secret that the royal elite partake of indulgences considered “haram” behind closed doors or while traveling abroad, and most especially booze.
Typically, western workers and oil execs – for example the local expat community in the energy industry – live in their own walled communities that are set apart from daily Saudi society. In these “suburb-style” Aramco compounds it is well-known that alcohol is discreetly consumed.
But Reuters has reported in a new exclusive on Wednesday that the kingdom’s strict prohibition on selling and consuming alcohol is about to the change. Of course, it will be a ‘limited’ loosening up, but it’s hugely significant nonetheless: “Saudi Arabia is preparing to open its first alcohol store in the capital Riyadh which will serve exclusively non-Muslim diplomats, according to a source familiar with the plans and a document,” the report says.
Obviously this will only act in a ‘for foreigners only’ kind of way, but the bin Salman regime is still touting this as part of a broader “reform” plan:
Customers will have to register via a mobile app, get a clearance code from the foreign ministry, and respect monthly quotas with their purchases, said the document, which was seen by Reuters.
The move is a milestone in the kingdom’s efforts, led by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to open the ultra-conservative Muslim country for tourism and business as drinking alcohol is forbidden in Islam.
It will be interesting to see what these monthly quantity limits will be. The individual quotas could in the end be so restrictive that this whole initiative will perhaps prove just symbolic in the end, meant merely to generate some positive PR for a ‘reforming’ MbS in Western headlines. Here’s a summary of the proposed restrictions:
- Thirsty envoys would need to register beforehand and receive clearance by the government
- No one under 21 will be allowed in the store and “proper attire is required” at all times inside
- Drinkers will not be able to send a proxy, such as a driver
- Monthly limitations would be enforced, the statement said.
Diplomats and foreign embassy staff already had their long relied upon workarounds in place, as for years officials with diplomatic passports could bring their secure “pouches” through airports, which authorities weren’t allowed to pry into based on diplomatic immunity and protections.
Under current/prior laws, expats could face deportation or steep fines if caught with alcohol. As for Saudis themselves, they would be subject to hundreds of lashes as well as hefty monetary penalties.