Saudi to open store selling alcohol to non-Muslim diplomats

AFP , Wednesday 24 Jan 2024

Saudi Arabia plans to allow alcohol sales to non-Muslim diplomats for the first time, two sources familiar with the plan told AFP on Wednesday, modifying strict rules governing liquor in the conservative country.

Alcohol bottles
File Photo: Alcohol bottles on the bar. AFP


Alcohol "will be sold to non-Muslim diplomats" who previously had to import alcohol via a diplomatic pouch, or sealed official package, one of the sources said.

The sales will take place in a store in Riyadh's Diplomatic Quarter, a neighbourhood of foreign missions and residences west of the city centre, according to a document seen by AFP.

Access to the store will be restricted to people who register on an application known as the Diplo App, and monthly quotas will be enforced, the document said.

Prohibition has been the law of the land in Saudi Arabia since 1952.

Rumours have swirled for years that alcohol would become available in the Gulf kingdom amid a wave of social reforms introduced as part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's Vision 2030 agenda, among them the introduction of cinemas and mixed-gender music festivals.

A Saudi government statement on Wednesday said authorities were introducing "a new regulatory framework... to counter the illicit trade of alcohol goods and products received by diplomatic missions".

The statement added: "The new process will focus on allocating specific quantities of alcohol goods when entering the Kingdom to put an end to the previous unregulated process that caused an uncontrolled exchange of such goods in the Kingdom."

The policy "will continue to grant and ensure that all diplomats of non-Muslim embassies have access to these products in specified quotas," it said.

Strict rules 

Access to the store in the Diplomatic Quarter "is strictly restricted to non-Muslims", according to the document seen by AFP.

"No persons under the age of 21 are allowed inside the store" and "proper attire is required", it says.

Those who register with the app are unable to send relatives, drivers, assistants or colleagues in their place, it says.

Use of mobile phones is prohibited in the store.

Under the quota system, those authorised to access the store will be able to purchase 240 "points" of alcohol per month. A litre of spirits is worth six points, a litre of wine is worth three points and a litre of beer is worth one point.

The Saudi government statement indicated that not much would change immediately for the vast majority of Saudi Arabia's 32 million people, who have few ways to imbibe unless they are willing to travel abroad.

Beyond attending receptions in the Diplomatic Quarter, they can make homemade wine or turn to the black market, where bottles of whiskey can go for hundreds of dollars ahead of holidays like New Year's Eve.

Regional rivalry 

Vision 2030 seeks to transform the world's biggest crude exporter into a business, tourism and sports hub, laying the groundwork for a post-oil economy.

Wednesday's news came as Saudi Arabia increasingly competes with its neighbours, especially Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, for foreign investment and tourism dollars.

This month, for example, authorities implemented a rule requiring multinational firms to set up regional headquarters in Saudi Arabia or lose out on government contracts.

Alcohol is available in myriad hotels, restaurants and bars in Dubai. In neighbouring Qatar, alcohol is served in licensed hotels and restaurants to non-Muslims over 21 years old.

Last year, Saudi Arabia was granted hosting rights for Expo 2030 and the World Cup in 2034, further fuelling speculation that the alcohol ban might be lifted, or at least weakened with carve-outs in places like NEOM, a planned $500 billion futuristic megacity.

But given that alcohol is forbidden in Islam, the issue remains deeply sensitive in the country that is home to the religion's holiest sites in the cities of Mecca and Medina.

Under Saudi law, penalties for consumption or possession of alcohol can include fines, jail time, public flogging, and deportation for unauthorized foreigners.

Saudi officials had until Wednesday dismissed suggestions of any major policy change.

"The short answer is, we are going to continue with our current laws," Deputy Tourism Minister Princess Haifa Al Saud said when asked directly about the issue at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2022.

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