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Why is Saudi Arabia softening its alcohol ban?

The Arab state had strict no-alcohol rules since 1952, but the introduction of its first alcohol shop in 72 years has people questioning Saudi Arabia’s stance on booze. 

Both foreigners and locals were left somewhat bemused when news broke of Saudi Arabia’s first alcohol shop. Well, first since 1952 at least.

For the past 72 years, Saudi – which has some of the strictest Muslim policy in the Middle East – has enforced a stringent no-alcohol law covering the purchase, consumption, and sale of any alcohol products.

But a growing concern with ‘the illicit trade of alcohol’ in the country has convinced Saudi officials to reconsider the law.

The new store will be located in Riyadh’s Diplomatic Quarter west of the city centre. But Saudi’s shouldn’t pop the champagne just yet; there will still be limitations on the store itself.

Only non-Muslim expats will be able to enjoy refreshments at the shop, and will need to register beforehand to receive government clearance. Under 21’s will also be banned from entering, and ‘proper attire is required’ at all times whilst inside.

Patrons will have to deal with monthly limitations on alcohol, enforced through a points system. 160 ‘points’ of alcohol will be allowed per month, with one litre of spirits amounting to six points, and a litre of wine three.

The privileges of alcohol will, ultimately, only be afforded to non-Muslim diplomats, and while its suspected the rules will be lax, it’s not likely the new law will be extended to non-diplomatic clientele any time soon.

Given Saudi Arabia’s political landscape, it’s no surprise that the new alcohol shop has had a mixed response from the national and international community.

Some Saudi expats believe a softened alcohol ban is a sign of the country’s development. A Lebanese businessman dining in Riyadh last week told The Guardian ‘this country keeps surprising us. It’s a country that is developing, that is growing and that is attracting a lot of talent and a lot of investments. So yes, of course there is going to be much more’.

Others, however, are concerned that the softened alcohol laws are a threat to Saudi’s Muslim values.

‘It’s not who we are’ said one Saudi man when asked about the new store. ‘[I do not have] some kind of judgement towards people who drink. […] But having something that is out there affects the culture and the community’.

His friend added that he would prefer people continue to go abroad to drink, as many do currently.

‘Everybody travels here. It’s easily accessible. But what I want to say is that in this jurisdiction, I’m not happy that it’s allowed.’

Another demographic who are against the news are those working in the ‘mocktail’ industry. Non-alcoholic bars and cocktails have become increasingly fashionable in Saudi Arabia, especially amongst wealthy clientele.

‘It’s not a good thing for me. I’ll lose my business,’ said Evans Kahindi, brand manager for Lyre’s, a non-alcoholic spirits company. ‘There has always been speculation about having real alcohol here… But to be honest, it’s with the government, we do not know yet.’

Other restaurant owners and workers were hopeful alcohol could boost business via tourism. ‘This could attract football towards the kingdom’, one restaurant manager said, meaning more customers.

The decision to allow legal alcohol sales is a tangible departure from the conservative norms that have long defined Saudi Arabia.

It prompts speculation about whether this is a harbinger of broader societal shifts, including reconsiderations of other contentious policies. The kingdom’s record on women’s rights, for instance, has been a subject of international scrutiny.

Could the softening of the alcohol ban signal a future re-evaluation of gender-related laws?

Saudi Arabia has indeed taken steps toward modernisation in recent years, with initiatives like Vision 2030 aimed at diversifying the economy and fostering a more inclusive society.

But the changes have often been met with resistance from conservatives within the country. The debate surrounding the alcohol ban, therefore, is an interesting litmus test for broader sentiments within Saudi society, more specifically those regarding the balance between tradition and progress.

It’s likely, however, that the move to legalise alcohol (however slight it may currently be) is more about economic and political pragmatism than anything else.

Softening the rules for expat diplomats – some of the wealthiest and most powerful people worldwide – is a calculated effort to create new revenue streams, cater to the tastes of global elites, and attract international investment.

The loosening of restrictions is, arguably, a move to align the nation with broader economic trends, rather than a sign of a more liberal Saudi future.

​​The question then becomes whether the relaxation of the alcohol ban will contribute to a more open and inclusive society or merely reinforce existing social hierarchies, with the wealthy and powerful enjoying newfound privileges.

Genuine progress cannot be measured solely by economic reforms or symbolic shifts in social policies. True transformation requires a comprehensive reassessment of human rights, including the empowerment and protection of marginalised groups, such as women and minorities.

In the end, the decision to allow legal alcohol sales in Saudi Arabia prompts critical questions about the nation’s future.

Whether or not this move is merely a symbolic shift, the decision to soften a stringent societal tradition signals an era of change for a country that has been historically immovable.