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May 22, 2024

Saudi Arabia Opens First Legal Alcohol Store, Signaling Major Reforms

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Jan 24, 2024

Saudi Arabia made history this week by opening its first legal alcohol store in Riyadh, marking a major milestone in the conservative Islamic kingdom’s gradual liberalization drive. This unprecedented move grants foreign diplomats long-denied access to liquor and could pave the way for future alcohol sales to tourists and other expatriates.

Background

Saudi Arabia has maintained a strict ban on alcohol for its citizens under sharia law ever since the country was founded in 1932. Possession or consumption of alcohol by Saudi nationals can be punishable by flogging or prison time.

However, foreign residents and visitors have often found means to consume liquor illicitly through bootleggers, homebrewing, or smuggling. Expats make up about a third of the kingdom’s 34 million population.

In 2016, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman unveiled his sweeping Vision 2030 plan to diversify Saudi Arabia’s oil-dependent economy, which called for expanding entertainment options and making the country more welcoming for foreign investment and talent.

Gradual reforms since then have included allowing cinemas, concerts, and gender mixing, stripping power from the religious police, and lifting bans on women driving and public gender segregation.

Store Opening

On January 23, 2024, Saudi authorities announced that an alcohol store has been established in the capital Riyadh to serve the diplomatic community exclusively.

Sources stated that it is located in a duty-free zone of the capital’s airport, stocked with alcoholic beverages imported by embassies for their own consumption. Only individuals with diplomatic ID cards will be permitted to make purchases.

The Ministry of Tourism indicated this represents an initial phase, with future stores catering to other expatriates down the line.

Item Diplomat Store Details
Location Duty-free area of Riyadh’s airport
Clientele Accredited diplomats
Selection Wines, spirits, beers imported tax-free by foreign embassies
Access Diplomatic ID required for entry and purchases
Payment Only credit cards accepted

This unprecedented outlet marks the first legal means for foreign, non-Muslim residents to obtain alcohol within the kingdom’s borders without illicit methods. It also signals a wider liberalization of the kingdom’s strict control of alcohol.

Reactions

The move has generated substantial attention and mixed reactions worldwide.

Some diplomats hailed it as long overdue. One anonymous Western official stated:

“We have been waiting for this for 20 years…We are very happy.”

However, conservative Saudis expressed outrage at what they see as the kingdom surrendering part of its Islamic values. A regional analyst told the BBC that “a red line has been crossed” which could trigger a conservative backlash.

Human rights groups welcomed this increased social freedom, but criticized its limitation to foreigners as discrimination, arguing alcohol sales should be permitted to all adults regardless of nationality or religion.

Tourism Impact

The diplomat liquor store is seen as the first step toward wider availability of alcohol to serve Saudi Arabia’s growing tourism industry.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman wants tourism to comprise 10% of Saudi GDP by 2030. As the country opens to foreign visitors, demand for alcohol access will likely increase, especially from Western businesspeople and tourists accustomed to drinking.

Consultancy firm Knight Frank forecasts alcohol sales in Saudi Arabia rising from $22 million currently to over $700 million by 2030.

The government indicated future alcohol stores could open in designated zones in major cities like Jeddah, serving select groups like foreign workers or holders of temporary visitor permits.

Ultimately, alcoholic drinks may become available in certain restaurants and hotels, helping attract more foreign investment in high-end dining and hospitality. The kingdom could generate substantial new tax revenue from levying alcohol duties.

Social Change

This shift did not occur overnight; it reflects gradual changing attitudes among young Saudis and a softening of the kingdom’s rigid religious rules.

In a 2019 survey, over 70% of Saudi youth supported allowing access to alcohol for visitors. Younger generations are seeking expanded social freedoms and access to entertainment like concerts and sporting events where alcohol is typically served.

However, the government is moving cautiously, limiting initial alcohol access to avoid provoking backlash from conservative clerics and older Saudis. It took years of debate before reaching this first compromise.

Further relaxing liquor laws will likely occur incrementally. But this first store establishes an important precedent and signal of intent around aligning with global norms on alcohol.

What’s Next

Additional alcohol stores tailored for select expatriates are expected to follow this diplomatic outlet. An early proposal would restrict sales to non-Muslim foreign residents with work visas.

The annual month-long cultural festival Riyadh Season, launched in 2021, is a likely venue for the kingdom to pilot controlled alcohol sales to event goers.

Major hotels and restaurants in large urban centers will eventually gain licenses to serve alcohol, especially properties catering to business travelers and tourists.

Home delivery of alcohol may be permitted once expatriate-focused stores launch, enabling discretion. Apps like Careem could offer liquor delivery to verified foreign residents.

A black market will persist as long as bans on Saudi citizens buying alcohol remain. Smuggling and illicit sales channels already service some Saudis’ unmet demand.

Full normalization of liquor sales could take decades to gain conservative acceptance. But Saudis are already witnessing once-unthinkable social changes unfold rapidly under the modernization push. This week’s landmark alcohol store shows that further reforms are imminent.

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AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.

By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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