For the first time in over 70 years, a shop selling alcohol has opened in Saudi Arabia, a diplomat revealed on Wednesday. The move marks another step towards social liberalisation in the kingdom home to the holiest sites in Islam.
While exclusively catering to non-Muslim diplomats, the store, situated in Riyadh's Diplomatic Quarter, aligns with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's ambitious plans to transform Saudi Arabia into a thriving tourism and business hub, diversifying the economy away from its reliance on crude oil.
The diplomat, who spoke anonymously to AP due to the sensitivity of the subject in Saudi Arabia, visited the store and likened its ambiance to that of an upscale duty-free shop at a major international airport. The store currently offers liquor, wine, and only two types of beer for the time being. Customers are required to show their diplomatic identifications, and mobile phones must be placed inside pouches while inside. A mobile phone app allows purchases on an allotment system, the diplomat said.
There has been no official comment from Saudi authorities regarding the opening of the store. However, the launch coincides with a report in the state-affiliated Arab News, outlining new regulations governing alcohol sales to diplomats. These rules aim to control the import of said beverages within diplomatic consignments and were implemented on Monday.
Diplomats have traditionally imported alcoholic drinks through specialised services for consumption on diplomatic premises. Those without access have resorted to purchasing from illegal sources or brewing their own, though the risks include severe penalties such as long jail sentences, hefty fines, public floggings, and deportation, according to the US State Department.
The consumption of alcohol is forbidden in Islam, and Saudi Arabia remains one of the few countries worldwide with a strict ban on alcohol, along with neighbouring Kuwait and Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. Saudi Arabia has banned alcohol since the early 1950s.