The Saga of Buying Alcohol in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait

The Saga of Buying Alcohol in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait

The lifestyle of Saad Ragheb has not changed much since he moved from Germany to Saudi Arabia, where a rigid version of Sharia law is enforced.

Based in Riyadh, the Lebanese engineer has played down the notion that acquiring alcohol is virtually impossible in the ultra-conservative kingdom, stressing that he can have as many drinks as he wants.

"Beforehand, the situation might have been a bit more complicated because of the ominous 'Commission for the Promotion of Virtue', but this has all changed," Ragheb said.

Apart from the UAE's Emirate of Sharjah that imposes restrictions on selling and consuming alcoholic beverages, all member nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council permit selling alcohol except for Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

Consumers in both countries still find a way around the alcohol ban.

Saudi Reforms Do Not Include Alcohol

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has shrunk the power of the morality police, no longer authorizing them to chase and arrest as they wish. Nonetheless, the ban of alcohol remains unchanged; it is not expected to be lifted in the foreseeable future in spite of recent reforms.

In an interview with Bloomberg on the sidelines of the Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh, Bin Salman said plans for the 26,500 square km (10,230 square mile) zone known as NEOM would fulfill the needs of foreign investors and tourists, though without permitting alcohol.

This means that although Saudis are reveling in new experiences they were once deprived of -- such as going to cinemas and concerts -- some of them would still seek illegal ways to purchase alcohol, and the same goes for Kuwait.

The situation in Kuwait is not so different from Saudi Arabia; there are no talks either on the governmental or parliamentary levels that may indicate the Gulf state -- ruled by the Al-Sabah dynasty -- would permit the trading of alcohol any time soon.

How Alcohol Is Smuggled in Saudi Arabia

Around 250,000 Saudis cross the King Fahd Causeway every week to spend weekends in Bahrain, according to official data. Many of the Saudi visitors head to the less strict neighboring country to spend time in nightclubs.

But the 400-km road trip to Manama is not the only way for Saudis to have a drink; liquor is available in several Saudi areas close to Bahrain. Mansour Abdulaziz, a pseudonym for a Saudi man who smuggles alcohol into his country, said the eastern city of Khobar is one of the most renowned Saudi places for booze.

There are usually no more than eight customs officers at the Saudi side of the King Fahd Causeway, whether in the morning or at night. Since they cannot afford to thoroughly search all vehicles entering the monarchy, they would only stop drivers who raise suspicions.

Many smugglers build on the approach of the understaffed customs officers, including Abdulaziz.

Bearded and wearing a white short galabya, Abdulaziz has the typical look of a devout Muslim. He drives his four wheeler while playing the Quran on his way back to Saudi Arabia from Manama, where he buys his wine stocks twice a week from the largest outlet in the region in Mina Salman.

Abdulaziz has not once been stopped or searched by customs officers. He realizes that he takes a risk, yet a financially rewarding one; he sells the alcohol he smuggles into Saudi Arabia at astronomical prices.

"The most important thing is that you're not drunk," Abdulaziz speaks of his experience with Saudi customs. "Be normal and don't be tensed."

Some alcohol smugglers resort to other tricks.


Share Tweet"The most important thing is that you're not drunk. Be normal and don't be tensed," a Saudi smuggler speaks of his experience with Saudi customs

Share TweetSome Saudi smugglers transport the alcohol with Asian workers, so they would not be held responsible should they get caught by authorities

In 2016, Saudi customs posted via its Twitter account photos of seized alcoholic drinks and explained some of the tricks smugglers resort to.

Some smugglers hide wine bottles in fuel tanks, others cover beer cans with stickers of non-alcoholic brands. Smuggling beer, however, is not quite lucrative compared to other drinks; it is the hard stuff that would generate a decent profit, such as whisky and vodka.

Other smugglers send the alcohol with Asian workers, so they would not be held responsible for the banned drinks should they get caught by authorities.

Much as Bahrain is a prime destination for alcohol smugglers, Abdulaziz stresses that most of the booze is smuggled into Saudi Arabia from UAE, particularly through Al-Batha border crossing.

There have been a multitude of local media reports about how authorities foiled attempts to smuggle alcohol and opioid pills through Al-Batha crossing, with smugglers stashing their goods in different ways.

Once caught, Abdelaziz explains, smugglers would say the alcohol they possess is for personal use in order to receive a lighter sanction when they stand trial.

According to Saudi law, a defendant charged with consuming alcohol can be sentenced to prison for up to two years, and slapped a travel ban that would be effective for as many years. Those found guilty would also be given rounds of lashes determined by the judge's verdict.

Liquor trading, on the other hand, could result in jail terms ranging between five and 15 years, pursuant to Article 38 of the penal code.

Abdulaziz says smugglers are usually keen to build good relationships with customs officers to make their job easier and less dangerous.

Cheerful Drink: Made in Saudi Arabia

Speaking to Raseef22, young Saudis say they acquire alcohol in water bottles and consume it at home or in private camps; they would completely avoid wandering around or talking to strangers while drinking or afterwards.

Ragheb said alcohol vendors are extremely cautious; he has to order his favorite drink in advance to make sure it would be available. While dealing with each other, customers and traders would use a code so no one would tell what they are talking about; Saudis have given alcohol many names, such as "my friend" and "hot water".

The "cheerful drink" is used to refer to an alcoholic beverage that is made in Saudi Arabia. It is usually the cheapest and of the poorest quality compared to smuggled liquor.

Making alcohol at home is a common practice among natives and foreigners, either for trading or personal use. Years ago, British man Karl Andree was jailed in Saudi Arabia after being caught with home-made wine in Jeddah.

The prices of the cheerful drink start from SAR 200 and can be up to 1000 (from $50 to 250). More recently, However, alcohol prices have gone down after smugglers became able to get drinks in the country more frequently, Ragheb explained.

He says a smuggled vodka bottle these days can be priced between SAR 70 to 200 (from $19 to 50). He indicates that it can be enough for a whole week, though it is considered to be expensive and only the well-paid can afford it.

Kuwait: Drinking at Home

Although alcohol is banned in Kuwait, people can consume it freely at home and authorities would not take action even if they knew about it.

Article 206 of law 46 of the year 1964 prohibits importing and selling alcohol, stating that such crimes shall be punished with prison terms that would not be longer than ten years.

However, consuming alcohol in Kuwait is a misdemeanor, not a crime, unless in the case of being intoxicated in a public place.

Kuwaiti Heritage?

Kuwaiti MP Nabeel Al-Fadl landed himself in hot water in 2014 when he called for legalizing the sale of liquor in his country, describing alcohol as part of the Kuwaiti traditions and heritage. He also said the alcohol ban had prompted the youth to take drugs.

On top of that, Al-Fadl highlighted the economic effect of the ban. He said thousands of Kuwaitis traveled to other countries to splash cash on drinks, saying such a huge amount of money should be spent in the local market. He also referred to smuggled alcohol, saying liquor cannot be effectively banned.

We Drink and You Know It

Mona from Kuwait says the alcohol trading in her country is completely different from Saudi Arabia, saying Kuwaiti authorities are fully aware of those who import and sell drinks in the black market yet without taking action.

"If I drank, and you know that I did yet you keep your mouth shut, why the ban then? Are we only deceiving people?" said the 34-year-old woman.

Home-made wine in Kuwait is of better quality than in Saudi Arabia, according to Kuwaiti and foreign consumers. However, it is too expensive that only the well-off can constantly buy. Middle class drinkers usually indulge themselves on special occasions only.

"Many young people do drugs because they are cheaper. Is this how to fight corruption from the government's perspective?" said Mona. "You cannot deny people something they want, the government needs to understand this."

Wine prices in Kuwait range between KWD 15 and 40 ($32,7 and 133). Stronger drinks such as whiskey and vodka can cost up to KWD 90 ($300).

Shuwaikh Port: the Smugglers' Road to Wealth

According to local media reports in 2015, Kuwait's most significant alcohol trader confessed while being questioned that he had used 36 trucks, each loaded with 450 boxes of liquor, to smuggle alcohol into the country. The anonymous man cited a "lack of security at Shuwaikh Port".

He would put coal inside the containers used to transport liquor, so that customs officers would avoid searching them out of fear of getting dirty, according to the investigation, which also revealed he was quite wealthy; he bought three large parcels of land in Bosnia and owned two houses and a farm in Kuwait.

In posh restaurants in Kuwait, there are always fancy bottles perched on tables. They might be mistaken for bottles of fine wine but one can tell upon a closer look it is actually a non-alcoholic beverage that restaurants use to make their customers feel they would go the whole nine yards.


A voice inspired by the Arab Spring, Raseef22 is an independent media platform, standing at the intersection between community, identity, democracy and social justice movements. Raseef22’s editorial line adopts local values with a modern perspective, filling a cultural void evident in the Arabic language media landscape.


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