Saudi Arabia drinking: The risks expats take for a tipple

By Mario Cacciottolo
BBC News

Image caption,
Some expats in Saudi Arabia are able to buy black market bottles of alcohol, despite a strict ban

The issue of drinking alcohol in Saudi Arabia has come sharply into focus once again after a British man was caught with homemade wine.

Karl Andree, 74, was arrested by Saudi religious police and has spent more than a year in prison - it had been reported that he was also facing 360 lashes but it has since emerged that he was going to be spared flogging because of his age and ill-health.

Alcohol is prohibited in Saudi Arabia and the Foreign Office warns Britons not to flout these rules - but how easy is it to get your hands on booze out there, despite this strict ban?

Tony, a 49-year-old Briton, has worked around much of Saudi Arabia as a business consultant, and lived there for almost five years. He is currently out of the country but plans to return.

He says those living on the compounds populated by Westerners have access to mainly homemade wine and beer, as well as "a spirit known as Sidique, which is basically neat distilled alcohol".

"If you are on the compounds you will find that quite a few expats will brew their own - I certainly did.

"Some of the compounds have clubs for brewing and even competitions. The big thing with brewing was never to sell it, as that was normally when the problems happened."

'A blind eye'

He adds that on a visit to the supermarket, an expat can often be seen "loading up his trolley with a couple of cases of fruit juice and a large bag of sugar" - the ingredients for brewing alcohol.

"Booze is a big thing on the compounds - they really are like little holiday camps. There are a couple that manage to smuggle in the real stuff and some of the bigger ones have bars that the Saudis turn a blind eye to.

"The Saudis have turned a blind eye to what goes on within the compounds for a very long time.

"There is quite a drinking culture with the Saudis themselves. Most of the guys that I socialise with have stocks of Jack Daniels and other booze, as well as buying stuff that some of the expats brew."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Most Westerners living in Saudi Arabia find accommodation in compounds

Transporting alcohol around is fraught with danger, Tony says, due to the many road blocks frequently in force.

"I used to have a lot of parties in a place called Obhur which is close to Jeddah - there you can hire villas with swimming pools and high walls.

"But I never bought alcohol there by myself as the risk was just too great. I always asked a Saudi friend to transport it - if they got stopped they would just give the police a bottle and they would be on their way again without a problem.

"The problem is if the Mutawa, the religious police, get involved as they will not turn a blind eye."

Black market

Tony also says that many of the "better off" Saudis would go to these places for parties, so the police would never raid unless they were tipped off that there was a problem and who was there.

"Even if there is no-one influential there it would normally be OK, unless you made excessive noise or upset anyone," he adds.

"Sometimes if you upset someone in a position of authority or that knows someone in a position of authority then you can be targeted."

John, 78, who lives in Staffordshire, worked in Saudi Arabia for eight years, leaving in 2007.

He brewed his own alcohol, had access to "good brands" of black market whisky, and says there were "very few" expats he knew who did not drink or brew their own beer and spirits.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Saudi Arabia, which has strict Islamic law, is where the Muslim holy city of Mecca can be found

"The general rule is, so long as you kept it quiet on your compound, the police wouldn't bother you," he says.

"But there were raids by the religious police, so it was always a risk, particularly if there was a party going on. They would take everything away, you included.

"There was a risk, but it was considered to be a slight risk. So long as you didn't advertise what you were doing you were fairly safe."

'Sophisticated' brewing

John does say that if he was at a high-spirited party where things got "rowdy" then he would leave, in case it drew attention and got raided.

"At some compounds the rules were very, very strict. If the Saudi owner lived there, then it was a subdued party. But if the rules were more relaxed at other places, you could relax more.

"I knew lads who had sophisticated equipment, stills and the like. They would distil pure alcohol, which you would buy and then water down. You could buy that fairly easily if you knew the right people. It was quite a big business."

John says the Saudis he worked with ignored the drinking culture of their Western colleagues, so long as it did not involve them.

"But it is against the rules, so if you got caught you only had yourself to blame."

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