Saudi Arabia may allow alcohol sales to non-Muslim diplomats for the first time, two sources familiar with the plan told AFP on Wednesday, modifying strict rules governing liquor in the conservative country.
Alcohol “will be sold to non-Muslim diplomats” who previously had to import alcohol via a diplomatic pouch, or sealed official package, one of the sources said.
Prohibition has been the law of the land in Saudi Arabia since 1952, shortly after one of King Abdulaziz’s sons got drunk and, in a rage, shot dead a British diplomat.
Rumours have swirled for years that alcohol would become available in the Gulf kingdom amid a wave of social reforms introduced as part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 reform agenda, among them the introduction of cinemas and mixed-gender music festivals.
A Saudi government statement on Wednesday said authorities were introducing “a new regulatory framework… to counter the illicit trade of alcohol goods and products received by diplomatic missions”.
The statement added: “The new process will focus on allocating specific quantities of alcohol goods when entering the Kingdom to put an end to the previous unregulated process that caused an uncontrolled exchange of such goods in the Kingdom.”
The policy “will continue to grant and ensure that all diplomats of non-Muslim embassies have access to these products in specified quotas.”
The statement indicated that not much would change immediately for the vast majority of Saudi Arabia’s 32 million people, who have few ways to imbibe unless they are willing to travel abroad.
Beyond attending diplomatic receptions in Riyadh’s Diplomatic Quarter, they can make homemade wine or turn to the black market, where bottles of whiskey can go for hundreds of dollars ahead of holidays like New Year’s Eve.
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Under Saudi law, penalties for consumption or possession of alcohol can include fines, jail time, public flogging and deportation for foreigners.
Last year, Saudi Arabia was granted hosting rights for Expo 2030 and the World Cup in 2034, further fuelling speculation that the alcohol ban might be lifted, or at least weakened with carve-outs in places like NEOM, a planned $500 billion futuristic megacity.
However given that alcohol is forbidden in Islam, the issue remains deeply sensitive in the country that is home to the religion’s holiest sites in the cities of Mecca and Medina.
Saudi officials had until Wednesday dismissed suggestions of any major policy change.
“The short answer is, we are going to continue with our current laws,” Deputy Tourism Minister, Princess Haifa Al Saud said when asked directly about the issue at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2022.