Saudi Arabia, the ultraconservative Islamic kingdom, has opened its first liquor store in more than 70 years, in a move that signals a shift in its social policies. The store, located in the capital city of Riyadh, is restricted to non-Muslim diplomats, who have to register and obtain clearance from the government before buying alcohol. The store is part of the kingdom’s efforts to curb the illegal trade of alcohol and to attract more foreign investment and tourism.
Saudi Arabia has been one of the few countries in the world that bans the production, import, sale, and consumption of alcohol, based on its interpretation of Islamic law. The ban was imposed in 1952, after a drunken prince shot and killed a British diplomat in Jeddah. Since then, anyone caught with alcohol could face harsh penalties, such as fines, imprisonment, flogging, and deportation.
However, the ban has not stopped some Saudis and foreigners from smuggling, brewing, or buying alcohol from the black market, which is estimated to be worth billions of dollars. Some diplomats have also been able to import alcohol through their diplomatic pouches, which are exempt from customs inspection.
The opening of the first liquor store in the kingdom is a historic change that reflects the social reforms initiated by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has been the de facto ruler of the country since 2017. The crown prince, also known as MBS, has launched a series of initiatives under the banner of “Vision 2030”, which aim to diversify the economy, modernize the society, and open up the country to the world.
Some of the reforms include allowing women to drive, lifting the ban on cinemas and concerts, granting more rights to religious minorities, and easing the restrictions on public entertainment and dress code. The crown prince has also sought to improve the kingdom’s image and relations with the West, after facing international criticism for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 and the ongoing war in Yemen.
A Limited and Controlled Access to Alcohol
The liquor store in Riyadh is not open to the general public, but only to non-Muslim diplomats who have to register and get approval from the government. The store is located in the Diplomatic Quarter, a gated community that houses foreign embassies and consulates. The store has a variety of alcoholic beverages, such as beer, wine, and spirits, and operates on a monthly quota system.
According to a document seen by Reuters, customers have to follow certain rules, such as:
- Being over 21 years old and wearing proper attire inside the store
- Not sending a proxy, such as a driver, to buy alcohol on their behalf
- Not exceeding the monthly limit of 240 points of alcohol, where one liter of beer is worth one point, one liter of wine is worth three points, and one liter of spirits is worth six points
The document also stated that the government is planning to introduce a new regulatory framework that would allow diplomats to bring in specific quantities of alcohol through their diplomatic pouches, in order to end the “uncontrolled exchange of such goods”.
The government has not announced any plans to extend the access to alcohol to other foreigners or Saudis, who still face severe punishment if caught with alcohol. The government has also not indicated any intention to allow alcohol sales in hotels, restaurants, or bars, as some other Muslim-majority countries do.
A Mixed Reaction from the Public and the Clergy
The opening of the liquor store has sparked a mixed reaction from the public and the clergy in Saudi Arabia, where alcohol is considered haram, or forbidden, by Islam. Some have welcomed the move as a sign of progress and tolerance, while others have condemned it as a violation of the country’s religious and cultural values.
Some social media users have expressed their support for the store, saying that it would reduce the demand for illegal alcohol and create more jobs and revenue for the country. Some have also argued that alcohol consumption is a personal choice and that the government should not interfere with people’s freedoms.
However, some have criticized the store, saying that it would encourage more alcohol abuse and addiction, and that it would undermine the kingdom’s Islamic identity and morality. Some have also accused the government of hypocrisy and double standards, for allowing alcohol for foreigners but not for Saudis.
The religious establishment, which has traditionally wielded significant influence and authority in Saudi Arabia, has also voiced its opposition to the store. The Grand Mufti, the highest religious authority in the country, has issued a fatwa, or religious ruling, that prohibits the sale and consumption of alcohol, and that warns of the negative consequences of alcohol on the individual and the society.
The Grand Mufti has also urged the government to reconsider its decision and to uphold the Islamic law and values that have guided the kingdom since its founding.