Saudi Arabia has a complete ban on alcohol. It is illegal to produce it, import it, or consume it. Saudi Arabia is a Muslim country where there is a strict interpretation of the Koran. It is also the home of Mecca which is the most important sacred site within Islam. There are harsh punishments for those caught making or drinking alcohol in the Kingdom. Despite these restrictions there are a number of options for people wishing to drink alcohol in Saudi Arabia.
The vast majority of alcohol available in Saudi Arabia is of the homebrew variety. The ingredients are readily available in supermarkets, especially those that cater to expats. The main ingredients are yeast and sugar. It is usual to buy these ingredients separately so as to avoid suspicion. Many foreign residents have their own basic brewing operation.
There is also a small supply of properly distilled spirits coming into Saudi Arabia. Diplomats usually avoid having their bags checked, and so they are able to take in duty-free spirits. This means that functions at foreign embassies will often involve a good selection of alcoholic beverages. Foreign armies in Saudi also have their own methods for obtaining brand name alcohol. Any non-diplomatic individual who may try to bring in alcohol through a Saudi airport is almost certain to be caught.
Those foreigners who drink alcohol in their compound tend to be ignored by the Saudi police. Anyone caught drinking outside the foreign compounds, or who brew/distill in large quantities, is liable to harsh penalties. This can include time in prison and/or a public flogging. Those who supply alcohol to Saudis are liable to the harshest penalties. Foreigners have been known to receive as many as 500 lashes for alcohol trading. If such a sentence is given there is little that foreign embassies will be able to do to help. There have also been instances of people arriving in Saudi Arabia and being detained because they smelled of alcohol.
There are no legal bars in Saudi Arabia where alcohol can be bought. Many compounds where foreigners are housed will have at least one informal venue where people meet to drink. This is often a room in a villa that has been turned into a bar. Some of these venues do look convincingly like western pubs. There will be no official opening or closing hours and people will sometimes drink all night. The only alcohol available will be of the homebrew variety.
Those who drink in Saudi Arabia will usually be consuming something of unknown strength. Most alcoholic drinks come from the homes of amateur brewers. This makes it impossible for people to safely judge the amount they are drinking. The most popular spirit in Saudi is siddiqi – it is often shortened to sid. This varies in strength but is a lot stronger than standard spirits available in the west. Sid can be as strong as 90% percent alcohol, and it often also contains impurities. Alcohol poisoning is common when people are drinking such strong concoctions.
There have been foreigners who accepted contracts in Saudi Arabia because they were battling an alcohol addiction. The logic behind this decision is that the illegality of alcohol should mean that it will be easier to give it up. Unfortunately such people often find that they have plenty of drinking opportunities in the Kingdom. Their alcohol problems can deteriorate as they begin to overindulge in the powerful illegal home brew.
As alcohol is banned in Saudi Arabia there are no treatment options for alcoholics. Those individuals who wish to escape the addiction will have to go it alone or travel abroad for treatment. Little is known about the extent of alcoholism among Saudis. There is a great deal of stigma associated with addiction, and any Saudi with a drink problem is likely to be treated as a criminal.
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