The inaugural alcohol store in Saudi Arabia has opened in the diplomatic quarter of Riyadh, granting access to non-Muslim diplomats. This development signifies a notable departure for the traditionally conservative Muslim kingdom, where alcohol has been prohibited since 1952 following an incident involving a Saudi prince and a British diplomat. Consumption of alcohol is also forbidden under Islam, a faith predominantly observed by the local population.
Despite the ban, alcohol has found its way into the kingdom through various channels over the years, often behind closed doors. Foreign embassies have the privilege to import alcohol under specific agreements with the Saudi government, and some have resorted to discreetly transporting alcohol in secure “diplomatic pouches” that evade inspection.
The newly opened alcohol store in Riyadh is accompanied by stringent rules, requiring entry and shopping authorization through the “Diplo” app, approved by the Saudi Foreign Ministry. Purchases are subject to a monthly quota system per registered individual. This tracked purchasing system aims to address the longstanding issue of smuggling, particularly by diplomats.
The Saudi government acknowledged the implementation of alcohol quotas for diplomatic missions, stating it is designed to counter the illicit trade of alcoholic goods. The government has not responded to requests for comment from CNBC.
Expats in the kingdom have gone to great lengths to procure alcohol, with anecdotes of whiskey concealed inside an imported grand piano and furniture shipments leaking alcohol. Saudi Arabia imposes severe penalties for those caught drinking or selling alcohol, including fines, lashes, deportation, and imprisonment.
Despite the strict regulations, some anticipate that the legalization of drinking outside diplomatic venues is inevitable, likely limited to specific locations such as hotels or special economic zones and restricted for Muslims. High-end restaurants in Riyadh and Jeddah already have fully equipped bars used for crafting nonalcoholic mocktails.
Saudi Arabia, under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has undergone significant social and economic changes as part of the Vision 2030 campaign, aiming to reshape the country’s image, attract tourism, diversify the economy, and generate employment opportunities for the youthful population.