Wait… What? I did a neck-wrenching double take when I first read the headline. A liquor store in Saudi Arabia? The Saudis have decided to fight booze smuggling by officially accommodating western diplomats…
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman: Pushing to make Saudi Arabia a
more-welcoming tourist destination. Will his planned changes
include easing alcohol laws to accommodate foreigners?
Ordinary folks like you or me couldn’t just walk into the new liquor outlet and buy booze. It’s strictly for foreign diplomats from countries where the sale and consumption of alcohol is legal. And there’s a quota system, to ensure they don’t drink too much or sell any surplus on the back market.
A serious problem
The Saudi government recently admitted publicly that there’s a serious alcohol problem among some Saudis who have taken a little too warmly to Western ways.
And they are being pandered to by opportunistic Western Diplomats who regularly bring in booze for their own use (strictly on Embassy property) in the Diplomatic Bag. The problem is, some embassies – or or at least some of their employees – have been bringing in much more booze than they could possibly justify for their own use.
CNBC reports that diplomats have gone to extreme lengths to smuggle booze into the country, when the diplomatic bag wasn’t ‘big enough’: “One former British diplomat recounted receiving bottles of whiskey stored inside an imported grand piano, while another described the moment that a company shipping his furniture told him, ‘Sir, your couch is leaking’.”
A lucrative side hustle
“Everyone knows which embassies sell booze … some of them have made a whole side business out of it, selling on the black market at four, five, even ten times the normal price. It’s gotten ridiculous. The government had to do something,” one Saudi financier told CNBC.
Those in the know report that a single bottle of Vodka can fetch up to (US)$600, and a bottle of bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue Label Scotch may go for between $1,000 and $2,000. “At-home booze making has also taken place in the kingdom for decades, according to expats who’ve previously lived there.”
Saudis took a hard line
Not only is alcohol prohibited under Islam – it’s been legally banned in Saudi Arabia since 1952, when a Saudi Prince murdered a British diplomat in a drunken rage.
Saudi citizens convicted of drinking face penalties including fines, the lash, imprisonment and even deportation.
So it’s no wonder the Saudis have taken a hard line with their plan to curb illegal drinking. The new system under which foreign diplomats can legally and openly buy booze works like this:
Qualified individuals are issued a smart phone app called Diplo, which they must use not only to buy booze, but simply to gain entry to the store. Their purchases are closely monitored by a central Saudi authority. Strict monthly quotas are enforced.
Will the new system work?
Few in the diplomatic community think the new regulatory system will achieve the goals the Saudi government has set for it. Undoubtedly, booze will continue to enter the country in the diplomatic bags.
And Saudi watchers say the culture is rapidly liberalizing. Young people under the age of 30 now make up 70 percent of the Saudi population.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s young de-facto ruler, has been pushing what he calls Vision 2030, a wide-reaching multi-trillion-dollar plan to update the country’s image, attract tourism and wean its economy off of oil.
I agree with the insiders who predict diplomatic-bag ‘imports’ and smuggling of booze into Saudi Arabia will likely continue.
And I have to agree that, in spite of the Diplo program’s earnest and stringent rules, a substantial illicit alcohol culture will continue to exist in Saudi Arabia.
I’ll be interested to see how bin Salman’s Vision 2030 program handles the alcohol issue…
~ Maggie J.