Picture: 123RF/BELCHONOCK
Picture: 123RF/BELCHONOCK

Riyadh — The lights are dim and the game is on loud at a sports bar in downtown Riyadh. Women perched on bar stools sip blueberry mojitos in front of wall-to-wall screens, erupting in cheers when their soccer team scores.

This being Saudi Arabia, of course there’s one thing missing: alcohol. The drinks are virgin because the country bans booze. But as the kingdom goes through an intoxicating social transformation, Saudis are now starting to wonder — some with excitement, many with concern — if another hallmark of their country’s strict interpretation of Islam might start to disappear.

Under de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom has drawn international castigation with the murder of a US-based newspaper columnist and the jailing of activists and dissident clerics. Yet there’s also been a loosening up of things that help foster the leadership’s narrative of an economic and social revolution.

One government employee said he’s 80% sure alcohol will be legalised, but found it sad, saying it would taint Saudi Arabia’s special status

A few years ago it would have been unthinkable that women would be able to mix freely in public with men, let alone drive. While the government has said nothing about legal drinking or, indeed, whether it would only apply to foreigners, even the fact that Saudis are talking about the possibility is remarkable.

“We’re in a totally different era,” said Saleh. As is typical in the kingdom, he asked not to be identified by his full name so he could speak freely. “We thought there won’t be movie theaters in the country, that women won’t enter sports stadiums or drive — now it’s all reality and very natural.”

Executives have told some foreign visitors to expect restrictions on booze to loosen in Saudi Arabia next year. Foreigners working closely with government entities are hearing the government is working on import licences.

Bin Salman’s grand goal is to plug Saudi Arabia into the global marketplace and create a destination that’s attractive to international talent, like Dubai. The prince wants businesses to flourish and tourists to flock to grand Red Sea resorts he plans to build.

Saudi officials didn’t respond to requests seeking comment for this article despite several attempts made over the past month.

In an interview with Bloomberg in October, Bin Salman said he couldn’t find a foreign CEO willing to move to Saudi Arabia to run his charitable foundation because they preferred living in Dubai. Among the benefits, non-Muslims can drink there under licence, and restrictions were even lifted during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. Residents can now order alcohol at licensed restaurants anytime of the day.

“The quality of life and lifestyle are not good,” the prince said. “They want to work one week in Dubai and one week in Saudi Arabia. Come on, what’s happening?” Any changes, though, should be “without moving from Saudi-based laws and religion.” 

It’s not like booze is unavailable, it’s just that Saudi Arabia looks more like the US during Prohibition than Dubai. There’s a thriving black market and home brew is sold openly at make-shift bars in residential compounds that cater to foreigners.

A bottle of smuggled wine costs about 800 riyals ($213); hard liquor such as whisky or gin goes for closer to 1,200 riyals. The diplomatic quarters of Riyadh — a gated neighborhood filled with embassies — plays host to barely concealed parties. Some Saudi homes are so well-stocked that a host would ask which kind of white or red wine his guests would like.

Alcohol talk leads to screeching

There’s talk that the King Abdullah Financial District, a special zone in northern Riyadh, is considering allowing alcohol, according to three people who spoke on condition of anonymity. The financial district, Neom and the government’s Centre for International Communication did not respond to requests for comment.

Speculation over the booze ban could be a result of the government trying to gauge people’s reactions before making any decisions. And, as ever, they’re divided in what’s still a deeply conservative society.

A group of six women leaving the sports bar last month, covered in black with only their eyes showing, screeched in shock at the idea of legalising alcohol. No way, one of them said. Impossible, said another.

At a nearby café, Abdel-Aziz said he and his friends expect alcohol to be introduced within the next five years, and about a third of them support it. He hopes it will be confined to resorts such as “Neom,” the Bin Salman’s planned sci-fi metropolis that’s supposed to become bigger than Dubai. “I’m okay with it if it’s at Neom and at the other new cities,” he said.

The kingdom wasn’t always dry. When oil men came to a young Saudi Arabia, alcohol flowed freely among foreigners, who shared it at parties attended by the Saudi elite

When talking about his plans in an interview with Bloomberg in 2017, Bin Salman said Neom would be dry on the Saudi side. Foreigners who want alcohol can cross the border into Egypt or Jordan.

There are other countries in the Middle East that also ban alcohol, such as Iran, Sudan and Kuwait. In many of those that don’t, there are significant restrictions even if they’re sometimes overlooked. In Dubai, alcohol can only be served at a licensed establishment, and violations can be punishable by jail time. In Egypt, hotels can’t serve Egyptians alcohol during the fasting month of Ramadan, which ended last week.

Islamic morality

Some officials and Saudis close to the government say alcohol could never be permitted because the kingdom is the steward of Mecca and the birthplace of the faith. Muslims around the world face Mecca when they pray, so Saudi Arabia must remain a bastion of Islamic morality, they argue.

If there’s any reversal of the ban, the expectation in Saudi Arabia is it will be partial. Licences could be awarded to eateries and hotels in a few pockets of major cities and in new resorts.

The Red Sea Project, a luxury tourism hub planned on the kingdom’s west coast, isn’t planning for alcohol to be permitted, according to John Pagano, CEO of Red Sea Development. The special zone will have “relaxed social norms” with “Western attire and modes of behaviour” allowed, he said. “All our underwriting assumes there’s no alcohol, though who could say?”

The kingdom wasn’t always dry. When oil men came to a young Saudi Arabia, alcohol flowed freely among foreigners, who shared it at parties attended by the Saudi elite. But in 1951, a son of King Abdulaziz killed the British vice consul in Jeddah after an alcohol-fueled incident. Soon after, the king banned booze.

Though Saudi drinkers are fond of citing dissenting rulings throughout the ages, most Islamic scholars view all alcohol as forbidden. One government employee said he’s 80% sure alcohol will be legalised, but found it sad, saying it would taint Saudi Arabia’s special status.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for the government to introduce alcohol,” said Nasma, waiting for a table at a restaurant in Riyadh where the cocktails are safely dry. “We are a Muslim country.”

With Matthew Martin and Stefania Bianchi

Bloomberg