On Friday, January 26th, Saudi Arabia marked a significant shift in its social landscape with the opening of its first liquor store in over 70 years. Located in Riyadh, this store represents a notable step in the nation’s journey towards social liberalization, a move that aligns with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s vision to transform Saudi Arabia into a global hub for tourism and business.
The store, which is currently restricted to non-Muslim diplomats, is part of the broader strategy to diversify the Saudi economy beyond its traditional reliance on crude oil. This development, however, comes amidst challenges posed by the prince’s international reputation following the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the conservative Islamic moves that have long defined the kingdom.
Situated in Riyadh’s Diplomatic Quarter, the store operates akin to an upscale duty-free shop at a major international airport, offering a selection of liquor, wine, and a limited range of beer. Customers are required to present diplomatic identifications and use a mobile phone app for purchases, adhering to an allotment system.
The opening coincides with new regulations governing alcohol sales to diplomats in Saudi Arabia, aimed at curbing the uncontrolled import of such goods. Before the new regulations, diplomats were able to import liquor through specialty services for consumption on diplomatic grounds, with those lacking access resorting to bootleggers or home brewing.
In Islam, drinking alcohol is considered haram, or forbidden, and Saudi Arabia remains one of the few nations with a ban on alcohol. The prohibition dates back to the early 1950s, following an incident involving then-King Abdulaziz’s son, Prince Mishari.
Under the leadership of Prince Mohammed and King Salman, Saudi Arabia has witnessed significant social reforms, including the opening of movie theaters, the lifting of the women’s driving ban, as well as hosting major music festivals. However, political speech and dissent continue to be strictly criminalized.
As the kingdom prepares for its ambitious $500 billion Neom City project, there has been speculation about the potential service of alcohol at a beach resort there, reflecting the evolving social norms in Saudi Arabia.