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Saudi Arabia Opens its First Liquor Store in Over 70 Years as the Kingdom Further Liberalizes

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Saudi Arabia, the once-ultraconservative kingdom known for its strict Islamic mores, has taken another step towards social liberalization by opening its first liquor store in over 70 years. This development comes as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman seeks to transform the kingdom into a tourism and business destination, diversifying its economy away from crude oil. While the liquor store is currently restricted to non-Muslim diplomats, it represents a significant shift in the kingdom’s approach towards alcohol.

Saudi Arabia to Open First Store Selling Alcohol

The Opening of the Liquor Store

The liquor store, located in Riyadh’s Diplomatic Quarter, sits adjacent to a supermarket and bears resemblance to an upscale duty-free shop found at major international airports. A diplomat, who requested anonymity, described the store as offering a selection of liquor, wine, and a limited variety of beer. To maintain security and compliance with the regulations, customers are required to present their diplomatic identifications and place their mobile phones in pouches while inside the store.

New Rules Governing Alcohol Sales to Diplomats

The opening of the store coincides with the implementation of new rules governing alcohol sales to diplomats in Saudi Arabia. These rules aim to control the import of alcoholic beverages within diplomatic consignments. Prior to this, diplomats had the ability to import liquor through a specialty service for consumption on diplomatic grounds. Those without access to this service resorted to purchasing alcohol from bootleggers or brewing their own at home. However, it is important to note that the consumption of alcohol by the general population remains strictly prohibited and is considered forbidden (haram) in Islam.

Historical Context: Banning of Alcohol in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia’s ban on alcohol dates back to the early 1950s when King Abdulaziz, the kingdom’s founding monarch, halted its sale following a tragic incident. In 1951, one of his sons, Prince Mishari, became intoxicated and fatally shot British vice consul Cyril Ousman in Jeddah. This incident led to the prohibition of alcohol, which was further reinforced in the aftermath of Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979 and a militant attack on the Grand Mosque in Mecca. Saudi Arabia’s rulers embraced Wahhabism, an ultraconservative Islamic doctrine that promoted strict gender segregation, a ban on women driving, and other measures.

Social Liberalization Under Prince Mohammed and King Salman

In recent years, Saudi Arabia has witnessed significant social reforms under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his father, King Salman. These reforms include the opening of movie theaters, allowing women to drive, and hosting major music festivals. These changes have been introduced as part of the kingdom’s broader Vision 2030 plan, which aims to modernize the country and reduce its dependence on oil. However, it is crucial to recognize that political speech and dissent remain heavily criminalized in Saudi Arabia, potentially carrying the penalty of death.

Challenges and Sensitivities

While Saudi Arabia continues to take steps towards liberalization, challenges remain. The international reputation of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been marred by the 2018 killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, which has raised concerns about the kingdom’s commitment to human rights. Additionally, conservative Islamic mores, deeply ingrained in Saudi society, pose internal challenges to further liberalization efforts.

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As Saudi Arabia prepares for the ambitious $500 billion Neom project, a futuristic city aimed at attracting tourists and businesses, discussions have emerged regarding the possibility of serving alcohol at a beach resort within Neom. However, sensitivities surrounding the consumption of alcohol persist, as demonstrated by the swift removal of an official who suggested that alcohol might be allowed at Neom in 2022.

Conclusion

The opening of the first liquor store in Saudi Arabia in over 70 years signifies a step towards social liberalization in the once-ultraconservative kingdom. While the store is currently limited to non-Muslim diplomats, it reflects Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s efforts to transform Saudi Arabia into a tourism and business hub. However, challenges remain both in terms of the prince’s international reputation and conservative Islamic mores deeply ingrained in Saudi society. As the kingdom continues its journey towards modernization, it will be essential to strike a delicate balance between social reform and respecting cultural sensitivities.

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