The controversial decision has divided opinion in the ultra-conservative nation.
The news of Saudi Arabia allowing its first alcohol shop has sparked contemplation among citizens and foreigners alike, prompting a crucial question: is this a minor policy adjustment or a significant upheaval?
Insiders familiar with the preparations for the store revealed details of the plan on Wednesday, accompanied by a circulated document outlining the meticulous approach that leaders of the teetotal Gulf kingdom will employ in managing its operations.
Situated in the Diplomatic Quarter of the capital, the store’s access will be exclusive to non-Muslim diplomats, signifying that, for the vast majority of Saudi Arabia’s 32 million people, there will be no immediate change. Moreover, strict purchasing quotas will be implemented, and entry to the store will be restricted to individuals who register through a designated application. Additionally, customers will be required to store their phones in a “special mobile pouch” while perusing the selection of beer, wine, and spirits.
Despite being limited to non-Muslim diplomats, some residents in Riyadh view the opening of the alcohol shop as a potential precursor to wider availability, marking a significant departure from the nationwide prohibition in place since 1952.
Expressing surprise, a Lebanese businessman, while dining at LPM, a renowned French restaurant in Riyadh, remarked, “This country keeps on surprising us.” He acknowledged Saudi Arabia’s development, growth, and attractiveness for talent and investments, suggesting that changes might follow. However, in line with the sensitivity surrounding anything related to alcohol in the country, he, like other diners, chose not to disclose his name. The prohibition of alcohol aligns with Islamic principles, particularly significant in a country housing the Muslim holy places of Mecca and Medina.
Under the Vision 2030 reform agenda led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia aims to transform into a diversified business, sports, and tourism hub, positioning itself for a post-oil era. In this context, the gradual introduction of alcohol, restricted to specific settings, could be a strategic move to attract more foreigners, according to Kristin Diwan from the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. She sees it as part of a broader effort to normalise government-sanctioned alcohol consumption.
The government’s Center for International Communication explained that the new policy’s objective is to counter the illicit trade of alcohol goods and products received by diplomatic missions, addressing concerns about a thriving local black market where alcoholic beverages are sold at high prices.
If the access to alcohol in Saudi Arabia were to expand beyond the reported limited scope, it could pose a potential challenge for vendors of mocktails and other non-alcoholic beverages, which have been gaining popularity as a fashionable choice. The introduction of alcoholic beverages might impact the demand for non-alcoholic alternatives, potentially altering the dynamics of the beverage market in the country.