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Saudi Arabia opens its first alcohol shop in more than 70 years

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Although reserved for non-Muslim diplomats, the store in Riyadh comes as Saudi Prince bin Salman aims to turn the kingdom into a tourism and business destination.

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For the first time in more than 70 years, a shop selling alcohol has opened in Saudi Arabia, a diplomat revealed on Wednesday. The move marks another step towards social liberalization in the kingdom that is home to Islam’s holiest sites.

While catering exclusively to non-Muslim diplomats, the store, located in Riyadh’s diplomatic quarter, is in line with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ambitious plans to transform Saudi Arabia into a thriving tourism and trade hub, diversifying the economy far from dependence on crude oil.

The diplomat, who spoke anonymously to the AP because of the sensitivity of the topic in Saudi Arabia, visited the store and compared its environment to that of an upscale duty-free shop at a major international airport. The store currently offers liquor, wine and for now only two types of beer. Customers are required to show their diplomatic IDs and cell phones must be placed in cases inside. A mobile phone app allows purchases on an allotment system, the diplomat said.

There has been no official comment from Saudi authorities regarding the store’s opening. However, the launch coincides with a report in state-affiliated Arab News outlining new rules regulating the sale of alcohol to diplomats. These rules aim to control the importation of such drinks within diplomatic shipments and were implemented on Monday.

Diplomats have traditionally imported alcoholic beverages through specialized services for consumption on diplomatic premises. Those without access have resorted to buying from illegal sources or brewing their own beer, even though the risks include severe penalties such as long prison terms, heavy fines, public floggings and deportation, according to the U.S. State Department.

Alcohol consumption is prohibited in Islam, and Saudi Arabia remains one of the few countries in the world with a strict alcohol ban, along with neighbors Kuwait and Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. Saudi Arabia has banned alcohol since the early 1950s.

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