The diary of a Saudi man, currently living in the United Kingdom, where the Religious Police no longer trouble him for the moment.

In Memory of the lives of 15 Makkah Schoolgirls, lost when their school burnt down on Monday, 11th March, 2002. The Religious Police would not allow them to leave the building, nor allow the Firemen to enter.

Monday, September 19, 2005


I had been meaning to write about "Booze" for some while, as an introduction to a post about the so-called "Booze Bombers". I am grateful to a reader over in the Emirates who has sent me an article about the Saudi drinks industry, that I will refer to later, and it has given me the necessary nudge.

Booze is not allowed in Islam, except for "medicinal purposes", where there is no alternative. Personally I enjoy the occasional "medicinal" pint of warm bitter in an English pub garden by a river or canal, or a nice "medicinal" glass of South African red with my steak. That probably means I'm a bad Muslim. I am very much against getting "legless", however I'm a strong believer that "A little of what you fancy does you good". And like a good Muslim I would never wear a Liverpool Football Club replica shirt ...

Q. Is it permissible to wear the Liverpool football club jersey, as it has the Carlsberg logo as its sponsor?

A. The ruling on wearing such tops and T-shirts is quite obvious, in that it is not permitted for a Muslim to wear anything that advertises and promotes beer, alcohol or any other unlawful item. By wearing such tops, one will be indirectly supporting their beer industry and assisting in sin.

...but that's because I follow Tottenham Hotspur. (Incidentally, colloquially known as "The Yids" by its supporters, many of whom are Jewish. "Come on you Yids" is a familiar chant. I enjoy the irony of joining in).

Right, having now offended our more muttawa readers on two counts, let's go for broke.

Saudi Arabia, as the government and religious establishment will tell you, is a "dry" country, in all senses of the word. But what is the reality? Well, I was once talking with the Saudi manager of a software house in Riyadh. He was telling me about an American guy that he'd recruited and brought over. Excellent CV, and excellent work for the first few weeks. Then his performance started to tail off, he came in later and later each morning, looking as rough as the proverbial dog's backside. So the manager spoke to him, and heard his sad tale. It turned out that the American was an alcoholic, and he'd deliberately chosen to come to Saudi Arabia because "there was no drink there", and he could break his habit. Of course, it didn't take him long to find out that there's plenty of drink, it's just a matter of knowing where to get it, and of course it's expensive. So he eventually headed back home, a saddened but unreformed alcoholic.

When I was young, my older relatives told me that the only alcohol to enter the country was brought in by western expats. What happened was that ships going up and down the Red Sea used to drop off the occasional crate, attached to a buoy. Then, as now, Westerners loved scuba diving in the Red Sea, and supposedly they used to go out on a weekend and bring the stuff inshore.

As I grew up, I realized that quite a number of my fellow Saudis were enjoying the occasional (or indeed frequent) "medicinal" treatment. I found this difficult to reconcile with the odd crate being carried ashore near Jeddah. In fact the more booze that I saw with my own eyes, the more I realized that it was arriving in industrial quantities. And then I picked up the common knowledge that the largest trade was operated by Princes, who had the clout and "Wasta" to get container-loads past Customs officials at the ports, and make sure they weren't searched at the regular roadblocks. Not only that, but the Princes themselves were said to be major customers, by those who occasionally moved in those circles. And it wasn't just my private joke; the late King Fahd was indeed known to be a great Johnny Walker fan.

The Western expat community are of course very resourceful when it come to booze. It's highly unlikely they haul it in from the Red Sea, but they do tend to brew it themselves. Go to any Western-style compound and you'll be plied with home-made wine and beer, some of it very good, some of it a bit rough for my exquisite taste. When they fancy something a bit stronger, they buy a large bottle of so-called "Sid", which is supposed to be 60-80% alcohol, illegally distilled locally. I never tried that myself because I was worried about it containing methyl alcohol, but it has many fans. A favorite trick was to buy cans of "malt drink" from the supermarket, in effect cans of beer without the alcohol, and then replace the alcohol that had been removed. Alternatively it could be used in any drinks that would normally contain gin or vodka.

There were even until recently a number of "pubs" for expats. They had fanciful names like "Pig and Whistle" or "McGinty's Bar", but instead of being High street buildings with flapping pub signs and piano music wafting out, were instead anonymous villas on compounds or in neighbourhoods. Everyone knew about them, including the cops, who turned a blind eye until the "Booze Bomber" campaign gave "Nasty Naif" the chance to close them down.

The non-Western expats are also in on the act, both as shippers and consumers. Stashes of booze are always turning up after police raids looking for "overstayers". The papers keep publishing pictures, a bit like pornography, thinking that we've never ever seen the real thing. The cache on the left has been impounded and is no doubt about to "pay its debt to society" in the homes of senior police officers.

The article in the Khaleej Times is a classic expose of the alcohol trade amongst our Third World guests. Entitled "Saudis shocked at discovery of wine factories", (which is like "Kansas shocked at discovery of cornfields" or "French shocked at discovery of vineyards"), it makes for fascinating reading.

Recent reports in the local media giving details of raids on illegal wine factories across the Kingdom have shocked Saudi society where alcohol is banned.

Shocked? Flabbergasted! We'd never have imagined it!

A number of government departments took part in the crackdown, including the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, with others providing general assistance.

In fact, just about every department has been trying to get in on the raids. However our fearless Muttawa have been elbowing all the others aside, I bet it was like "Happy Hour" all night, there's no stopping them when there's free booze to be grabbed - sorry, illicit alcohol to be confiscated.

On Tuesday, a residential place in the Al Rabwa neighbourhood, east of the capital, was broken-into and a complete alcohol-producing factory was uncovered along with SR15,000 worth of goods ready to be distributed across the Kingdom.
The house had been rented by a Saudi national in charge of the marketing side with a number of workers, mostly from Africa, overseeing the production.

Usual allocation of labor; "darkies" doing the work, a Saudi to collect the money. The whole process was on an industrial scale, but some of the methods were...err..."innovative".

The report said that further searches of the property provided details of how large quantities of wine were being produced, using heavy machinery to process the grapes, rat carcasses to accelerate the fermentation process as well as sewage water and several banned chemicals.

Let's hope that the rat had been hung and aged for a long time; there's nothing more guaranteed to spoil a good vintage than an immature rat. Same principle with the sewage.

And this stuff was selling like "Harry Potter" (which is also supposed to be banned in Saudi Arabia).
(One $ US = SR 3.7)

A two-litre bottle of beer can cost as much as SR 250 with some producers offering discounts for large orders. On an average, the number of barrels used to ferment grapes in each of the twenty illegal factories discovered by the police was 50, holding 500 litres, the price of which was SR 3.75 million, usually sold within a two months period. A single factory could therefore generate SR 22.5 million every year.

That's Big Bucks. No wonder the "Booze Princes" want this sort of competition closed down. They've read "The Seven Secrets of Successful Bootleggers". However, compared to traditional methods of "gaining that competitive edge", using the muttawa is less noisy and leaves less mess on the walls. But where did the intelligence come from?

An official involved in the latest raid told Asharq Al-Awsat that wine factories were, for the most part, uncovered with the help of individuals previously involved in the trade, who regretted participating in illegal activities and cooperated with the authorities.

There's nothing that encourages "regret" and "cooperation" more than a good energetic beating on the soles of the feet, and anxiety about one's toenails being flushed down the toilet one-by-one.

If you're a bit fussy about your booze, and worried that it's been fermented with an immature rat, then without doubt your best bet is the various Western embassies in Riyadh. They are very hospitable and often host events at which locals are invited. And of course their booze is straight from home and perfectly legal, entering the country in a container-size "diplomatic bag". If wine is your thing, obviously it's the French Embassy. July 4th at the US Embassy is ideal for Bourbon and other strong drinks, and St. Patrick's Day at the Irish Embassy brings out the Guinness and Jamesons. And every Wednesday night used to be "Bierkeller Night" with the Germans. However there have been ocasional hiccups in the diplomatic traffic. There was a time in 2003 when relations between the US and the Saudi government were a bit strained. An ambitious security officer impounded the US Embassy "booze truck" making its regular run from the port,and wouldn't let it go. As you can imagine, tempers got very frayed. It almost got to the stage of Colin Powell appearing at the UN with satellite photos and telephone intercepts. Fortunately it was released in time. History doesn't record whether the contents remained intact.

A junior diplomat at one Embassy is reported to have organized his own private booze shipment. It was a huge and heavy crate, and he got the shippers to label it as a piano. He eagerly awaited delivery. His world fell apart when he got the following message from Saudi Customs. "Fork-lift truck in Customs warehouse has damaged your crate. Your piano is leaking. Please advise."

Soon: The sorrowful saga of the so-called "Booze Bombers".

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