Saudi Arabia set to open alcohol store, first in more than 70 years

Embassy of Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia has announced plans to establish a liquor store in Riyadh, marking the first such opening in over 70 years.

The clientele for this establishment will be restricted to non-Muslim expatriates, specifically diplomatic staff, who have traditionally relied on sealed official packages (diplomatic pouches) to import alcohol.

Saudi officials aim to address the issue of the “illicit trade of alcohol” with the introduction of this shop. Prohibition on alcohol has been in place since 1952, following an incident where one of King Abdulaziz’s sons fatally shot a British diplomat while under the influence.

The new store, situated in Riyadh’s Diplomatic Quarter, will require thirsty envoys to pre-register and obtain government clearance. The establishment will enforce age restrictions, only permitting individuals aged 21 and above, and patrons must adhere to proper attire guidelines.

Proxy purchases, such as through a driver, will not be allowed, and monthly limits on alcohol purchases will be imposed. Patrons will be restricted to 240 “points” per month, with different point values assigned to varying alcohol quantities.

While the document, seen my AFP and Reuters, suggests a relaxation in restrictions for diplomats, there is no indication that the store will cater to non-diplomatic foreigners without access to alcohol privileges. It is emphasised that even with this development, individuals must be cautious about where they consume alcohol, given the existing strict penalties under Saudi law, including fines, imprisonment, public flogging, and deportation for unauthorised foreigners.

The document also reveals plans for a “new regulatory framework” that would permit diplomats to bring in “specific quantities” of alcohol, aiming to control the exchange of such goods. This move aligns with broader initiatives under “Vision 2030” to liberalise Saudi society, spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

While similar alcohol restrictions exist in other Gulf states, the document does not suggest any intention to follow the UAE and Qatar in allowing the sale of alcohol to non-Muslims in specific establishments.

The historical context highlights a shift in Saudi Arabia’s stance on alcohol, which was initially tolerated until the 1952 ban prompted by a tragic incident involving a Saudi prince and a British diplomat.

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