Saudi Arabia Opens Its First Liquor Store In Over 70 Years As Kingdom Further Liberalizes

This is a locator map for Saudi Arabia with its capital, Riyadh. (AP Photo)
This is a locator map for Saudi Arabia with its capital, Riyadh. (AP Photo)

JERUSALEM (AP) — A liquor store has opened in Saudi Arabia for the first time in over 70 years, a diplomat reported Wednesday, a further socially liberalizing step in the once-ultraconservative kingdom that is home to the holiest sites in Islam.

While restricted to non-Muslim diplomats, the store in Riyadh comes as Saudi Arabia's assertive Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman aims to make the kingdom a tourism and business destination as part of ambitious plans to slowly wean its economy away from crude oil.

However, challenges remain both from the prince's international reputation after the 2018 killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi as well as internally with the conservative Islamic mores that have governed its sandy expanses for decades.

The store sits next to a supermarket in Riyadh's Diplomatic Quarter, said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a socially sensitive topic in Saudi Arabia. The diplomat walked through the store Wednesday, describing it as similar to an upscale duty free shop at a major international airport.

The store stocks liquor, wine and only two types of beer for the time being, the diplomat said. Workers at the store asked customers for their diplomatic identifications and for them to place their mobile phones inside of pouches while inside. A mobile phone app allows purchases on an allotment system, the diplomat said.

Saudi officials did not respond to a request for comment regarding the store.

However, the opening of the store coincides with a story run by the English-language newspaper Arab News, owned by the state-aligned Saudi Research and Media Group, on new rules governing alcohol sales to diplomats in the kingdom.

It described the rules as meant “to curb the uncontrolled importing of these special goods and liquors within the diplomatic consignments.” The rules took effect Monday, the newspaper reported.

For years, diplomats have been able to import liquor through a specialty service into the kingdom, for consumption on diplomatic grounds.

Those without access in the past have purchased liquor from bootleggers or brewed their own inside their homes. However, the U.S. State Department warns that those arrested and convicted for consuming alcohol can face “long jail sentences, heavy fines, public floggings and deportation.”

Drinking alcohol is considered haram, or forbidden, in Islam. Saudi Arabia remains one of the few nations in the world with a ban on alcohol, alongside its neighbor Kuwait and Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates.

Saudi Arabia has banned alcohol since the early 1950s. Then-King Abdulaziz, Saudi Arabia's founding monarch, stopped its sale following a 1951 incident in which one of his sons, Prince Mishari, became intoxicated and used a shotgun to kill British vice consul Cyril Ousman in Jeddah.

Following Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution and a militant attack on the Grand Mosque at Mecca, Saudi Arabia’s rulers soon further embraced Wahhabism, an ultraconservative Islamic doctrine born in the kingdom. Strict gender separation, a women's driving ban and other measures were put in place.

Under Prince Mohammed and his father, King Salman, the kingdom has opened movie theaters, allowed women to drive and hosted major music festivals. But political speech and dissent remains strictly criminalized, potentially at the penalty of death.

As Saudi Arabia prepares for a $500 billion futuristic city project called Neom, reports have circulated that alcohol could be served at a beach resort there.

Sensitivities, however, remain. After an official suggested that “alcohol was not off the table” at Neom in 2022, within days he soon no longer was working at the project.