EXCLUSIVE-Saudi Arabia prepares to open first alcohol store for diplomats


By Aziz El Yaakoubi

RIYADH, Jan 24 (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia is preparing to open its first alcohol store in the capital Riyadh which will serve exclusively non-Muslim diplomats, a source familiar with the plans and a document showed on Wednesday.

Customers will have to register via a mobile app, get a clearance code from the foreign ministry, and respect monthly quotas with their purchases, the document said.

The move is a milestone in the kingdom's efforts, led by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to open the ultra-conservative Muslim country for tourism and business as drinking alcohol is forbidden in Islam.

It is also part of wider plans known as Vision 2030 to build a post-oil economy.

The new store is located in Riyadh's Diplomatic Quarter, a neighbourhood where embassies and diplomats reside and will be "strictly restricted" to non-Muslims, the document said.

It was unclear if other non-Muslim expatriates will have access to the store. Millions of expatriates live in Saudi Arabia but most of them are Muslim workers from Asia and Egypt.

A source familiar with the plans said the store is expected to open in the coming weeks.

Saudi Arabia has strict laws against drinking alcohol which can be punishable by hundreds of lashes, deportation, fines, or imprisonment and expatriates also face deportation. As part of the reforms, whipping has largely been replaced by jail sentences.

Alcohol has been available only through diplomatic mail or on the black market.

The Saudi government did not respond to a request for comment.

State-controlled media reported this week that the government was imposing new restrictions on alcohol imports within the diplomatic consignments, which may boost demand for the new store.

The new regulation will curb imports to counter "improper exchange of special goods and alcoholic beverages received by the embassies of non-Muslim countries inside Saudi Arabia", Arab News daily reported on Sunday.

Saudi Arabia, which was relatively closed off for decades, has in recent years relaxed strict social codes, such as segregating men and women in public places and requiring women to wear all-covering black robes, or abayas.

Prince Mohammed's tightening grip on power has been accompanied by changes which included opening the country for non-religious tourism, concerts and allowing women to drive, as well as a crackdown on dissent and political rivals.

Vision 2030 also includes developing local industries and logistics hubs, and aims at adding hundreds of thousands of jobs for Saudi nationals.

(Reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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