Birth of a prohibitionnist regime : Saudi Arabia, 1952

par Philippe Bourmaud


Birth of a prohibitionnist régime : Saudi Arabia, 1952


Part 1 : Alcohol, Wahhabism and Society in Saudi Arabia


Introduction : Haram !


As this carnet is beginning, let us state clearly that we start with the understanding that alcohol in the Islamic world cannot be perceived solely in a religious light, and that its reprobation is not sufficiently explained by a common perception of its being religiously blamable. No doubt, drinking alcohol is often considered haram. Yet haram is a highly polysemic word, the use of which is often but a cry far of religious obligations. It conveys, not only a sense of the sacred (haram as sanctuary), or of prohibition (as opposed to halal, for instance regarding food), but a wider meaning of social obligation and of an order of things being violated : for instance, the narration of an accumulation of misfortunes will be met with a compassionate « haram… » True, it is a pole in a religious sanction of behaviours, ranging from the acceptable (halal) to the blamable (haram), via the hateful but not reprehensible (makrouh), and Islamic scholars use this gradation to condemn alcohol drinking. Moreover, that drinking alcohol is haram in this sense is common knowledge. But condemnation seldom comes down to that, as there is a strong element of ethical reprobation towards behaviours which, in any case, ought not to be made public and visible.

In the modern and contemporary periods, the reprobation has been enriched and complexified by the assimilation of medical advice, social policy, job marketability (a reputation as a drinker can easily block access to a job, except in certain positions – in particular in Ottoman sultan Mahmud II’s higher administration and especially at the higher ranks ofr his army – where it is actually rewarding to be seen as detached from religious views )… Meanwhile, according to François Georgeon, its consumption has become normalized in many ways since the 19th century, first and foremost by being assimilated to a signifier of modernity and cultural openness to the West. By the same token, reprobation has been clothed in shades of modernism (usually health-related) and traditionalism (usually grounded in Islamic discourse), which often enough combine. Alcohol prohibition has a lot to do with those modern development, and its history shows that it seldom can be pinned down to a purely religious agenda.


Saudi Arabia : The legacy of Hanbalism


Saudi Arabia is a case in point – and a significant one, given the dominance there of Wahhabism, known for the austerity of its interpretations of Islamic practices. As the doxa would have it : if prohibition were purely Islamic anywhere in the Islamic worlds, should it not be in Saudi Arabia ? Well, Wahhabism is relevant here  , but it is not the whole story. To understand this, we have to go back to the preparations for the succession of Abd al-Aziz b. Abd al-Rahman Âl-Sa’ud, the founder of Saudi Arabia, in the years preceding his death in 1953.

Together with Iran, Saudi Arabia is one of the two examples of state prohibition of alcohol in the Middle East. In the Saudi case, this is commonly associated with the rigorism of the state-endorsed version of Sunni Islam, wahhabism. Wahhabism, the argument goes, is associated with the dynastic rule of the Âl-Sa’ud since the middle of the eighteenth century, which effectively gave Wahhabi Islamic scholars a capacity of censorship. Wahhabism adheres to the Hanbali rite ; Islamic tradition condemns drinking « ḫamr », a word which encapsulates, by its vagueness, an undefined range of products. While a common contemporary  joke (heard by yours truly in East Jerusalem around the fall of 2004) defines ḫamr as « wine from Saudi Arabia », the abstinence from which is supposed to be common sense, hanbali ulemas have tended to give the word a large definition : not only « wine » (the most commonly accepted translation), nor just alcohol (the usual extent given to religious prohibition), but intoxicants in general. Hanbali scholar Ibn Taymiyya ( extended in the 14th century the realm of the haram to psychoactives, in particular haschisch. By implication, the logic goes, Wahhabism calls for a particularly cautionary, strict and extensive understanding of Islamic condemnation of ḫamr drinking. In the eighteenth century, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, religious reformer strongly influenced by hanbalism, reiterated the strong condemnation of alcohol. By the early 1870s, it was the turn of Wahhabi scholar sheykh Abd al-Latif b. Abd al-Rahman to give a reminder of the prohibition, this time with an open political goal. In a letter to Hamad b. Atiq, he condemns Ottoman rule and accuses the Ottomans of spreading immorality such as alcohol and sodomy, in line with the opposition, both religious and political, of the house of Sa’ud and of Wahhabi ulemas, to Ottoman power and the control of the ulemas by the state in the « well-protected domains » of the Sultan[1].

As in many things in Saudi Arabia, religious obligations provide an official rationale to alcohol prohibition. The Ulema are part and parcel of the state, in spite of wahhabism having emerged from a reaction to Ottoman integration of Islamic scholars into the state, in a subordinate place in the process of producing law. A Council of Major Ulemas was instituted in 1971   ( ), following a tradition of influential Ulema dynasties. While formally, Ulemas and then the Council have assumed the rôle of vetting new legislation from a religious point of view, they have in practice limited their rôle to giving approbation to government actions and thus legitimizing the Al-Sauds. The ruling dynasty, in return, has operated within the bounds of a strict interpretation of Islamic norms. As opposed to the Islamic Republic of Iran, however, it can hardly be considered constrained by Islamic scholars.


Ongoing prohibition, ongoing transgression


As a result, the enforcement of alcohol prohibition is more a political than a religious issue. Strict prohibition of alcohol, other intoxicants, and smoking tobacco had already been proclaimed by Muhammad b. Abd al-Wahhab, the founder of Wahhabism, in the 18th century[2]. It became law in the whole of Saudi Arabia with the foundation of the kingdom in 1932. Tobacco consumption, however, goes on unhindered to this day, without any opposition to advertising for cigarettes. Alcohol was and still is forbidden for subjects of the kingdom, as it is in Kuwait, Yemen, Qatar, the emirate of Sharjah, and since 2017 Iraq, but not in a uniform fashion. Prohibition is particularly strict in Saudi Arabia, inasmuch as it affects the import, sales, circulation, and consumption, and extends to all residents of the kingdom.

Already in the days of Muhammad b. Abd al-Wahhab, prohibition was not strictly adhered to, leading the founder of wahhabism to impose the shaving of their beards or a fine on transgressors[3]. In the twentieth century Abd al-Aziz Âl-Sa’ud delegated to councils that included local dignitaries the enforcement of alcohol prohibition in the main cities of the Hijaz part of the kingdom, Jeddah, Mekka and Medina : as a result, prohibition in Hijaz was enforced less severely than in the Nejd region[4]. By and large, prohibition made it largely unpopular and often dangerous for Saudis to be caught having drunk alcohol, but over time, it became eased in certain environments. The unspoken rule being that it should be drunk behind closed doors, so as not to cause public scandal. The extent of transgression seems to have changed over time : only in the 1970s-1980s did its consumption get popularized among Saudis, presumably through contacts with international expats[5]. Still, a definite gap exists between official prohibition all through the kingdom, and effective enforcement. Drinking alcohol is very much frowned upon. Importing it – theoretically a crime punishable by death – can entail severe whipping or jail.


Alcohol : a known unknown


As a result, the extent of alcohol consumption (and consequently, alcoholism) remains unknown and unmeasured : indeed it is supposed not to exist in the kingdom. A number of organizations in the country work on addictions, promoting a medicalized approach to, among other things, alcohol. But they are hard put to assess the extent of alcohol-related public health issues for lack of data. WHO tries to assess consumption for its Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health, essentially through cross-checking data derived from anonymous questionnaires and cases of consumption and addiction recorded in the kingdom’s hopsitals. The 2004 report considered alcohol consumption in Saudi Arabia to be « considerable », and from the late 1990s to the 2010s, overall consumption has been assessed to remain stable. (Official figures record an overal consumption of zero or close to zero liter, unsurprisingly in a prohibition country) . While it found 97% of the Saudi population to be abstemious over the last year (99% among women and 95% among men), statistics gathered in hospitals showed a different story : out of 160 male patients aged 20 or older at Al-Amal Hospital in Riyadh in March 1998, 23,75% had used alcohol. Among a population of 116 of the same gender- and age-group in an hospital in Al-Dammam, 31% were found to be alcohol users, 20% mixed it with other substances. (Al-Dammam is not only the heart of the main oil-producing region in Saudi Arabia, meaning that there are a number of expats living there. It is also closer than Riyadh to alcohol-selling neighbouring states, in particular Bahrein  .) The overall consumption was assessed to be 0,6 liters of pure alcohol per inhabitant and per year. Put together, these figures are hard to reconcile at first glance : the hospital populations under scrutiny present large shares of alcohol drinking and abuse, in a population that drinks, by and large, very little. The discrepancy between overall figures and clinical data obtained from the hospital seems to owe to a variety of factors. First, drinkers are a population at risk, with typical features of « dry » countries such as a high rate of alcohol induced road accidents inducing traumas and prolonged hospitalization[6]. Second there are very stiff differences in consumption / abstinence patterns among Saudis, with enclaves of more common consumption among a generally abstemious population, and an understatement of consumption associated with a strong social stigma against drinkers[7]. Overall, these tendencies appear stable over a ten-year period, and the 2014 report only hints at a growth in the proportion of alcohol drinkers in the population, especially among women : the figure now stood at 94,2% of abstainers over the previous year (including 90,1% of lifetime abstainers), with 7,5% of men and 3,4% of women being reported as currently drinking [8]. All types of alcohol are consumed, especially globalized brands of whisky and gin. Heineken beer has been « smuggled » into the kingdom under the guise, for instance, of Pepsi Cola cans[9]. Quite common is a local alcohol named Siddique (faithful friend), distilled from fermented sugar water, colourless and undistinguishable from water, carried around in used water bottles and often drunk in cocktails[10]. Still the reforms induced by the effective rule of Prince Muhammad b. Salman did not extend to alcohol[11]. In recent years, arrests of individuals found in the possession of alcohol at home, including of one British citizen and former oil executive aged 74, were often given high profile. True, in the case, the incarceration has more to do with strained relations between Saudi Arabia and Britain than with shoring up the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice[12]. Yet the repetition of such cases highlights the contrast between the norm, how ever hegemonic and widely publicized, and individual practices that, put together, are far from an insignificant social phenomenon.

The latter evolution is notable, but it is difficult for Saudi institutions to translate into policy. Hopefully we will deal in the near future with patterns of prevention of alcohol abuse in the Middle East, especially advertisement. A cursory look by this writer  at satellite channels from the Gulf states, about half a dozen years ago, showed the most common approach to alcohol as a public problem to be one that conflated alcohol drinking and substance abuse. This, WHO considers to be a frequent but not general pattern. Ads were focused on preventing individuals from beginning to drink, rather than on accompanying drinkers. Other approaches to drinking were likely to be inhibited by the social stigma against drinkers and official prohibition. The ads showed public awareness about the issue ; its simplification reflected a lack of quantitative and qualitative data, which was understood to hamper efficient policy making. Updates and interviews would of course be necessary to make out how WHO data have influenced policy in recent years, but prohibition, in any case, remains in force .


Prohibition and the oil economy


The singularity of Saudi Arabia owes to the extension of the prohibition, as in Iran, to foreigners. As a result, there are no official enclaves of consumption – such as international hotels – available of the many highly-paid, white Western expats who immigrated to work in the oil industry. Yet informalized alcohol consumption has gone on among them, and it is commonly assumed that they were instrumental in creating an alcoholic counter-culture in the kingdom.

What is known about drinking patterns and alcohol prices reflect the affluence of Saudi Arabia as an oil economy. Alcohol is easy to find – largely homebrewed, but also imported with very high costs : a bottle of spirits is reported to cost up to 300 $ a  liter[13]. Finding alcohol is a significant concern among most expats working in Saudi Arabia, in the oil sector and elsewhere. Informal bars, parties, and other locales of consumption exist. And for those who can drive to Bahrein, Manama offers another option to drink, one that gets heavily crowded with Saudis over the week-end.

This is not exclusive of an officially tough stance on alcohol : to the contrary, tough policing combined with the turning of a blind eye on users provided they do not rock social order or the political régime has been a widely used tool of social control – one that could be used to describe the war on drugs in the United States. In Saudi Arabia, Virtue commissions continue to operate across the kingdom, and by and large alcohol does not appear to have become a site of confrontation between state and society in the way that permission for women to drive or accusations of atheism have. For all that, alcohol remains a deeply political issue – as can be illustrated by the 1952 generalization of prohibition.




[1]    David Commins, The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia, London, I.B. Tauris, 2006.

[2]    Roni Zirinski, Ad Hoc Arabism : Arabism, Culture and Technology in Saudi Arabia, Frankfurt-am-Main, Peter Lang, 2005, p. 108.

[3]    Simon Ross Valentine, Force and Fanaticism : Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia and Beyond, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2015, p. 37.

[4]    David Commins, The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia, London, I.B. Tauris, 2006, p. 77.

[5]    Tanja C. Laschober, « Islam and Saudi Arabia », in Scott C. Martin, The SAGE Encyclopedia of Alcohol : Social, Cultural, and Historical Perspectives, SIbid.AGE Publications, 2014.

[6]    WHO, WHO Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health, Geneva, WHO, 2014 : (visited on April 15th, 2018).

[7]    WHO, WHO Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health, Geneva, WHO, 2004 : (visited on April 15th, 2018).

[8]    WHO, Global Status Report, 2014.

[9]    Jason Lemon, « Pepsi or beer ? Saudi police confiscate 48,000 disguised cans », StepFeed: (visited on April 26th, 2018).

[10]  « Siddique », Urban dictionary : (visited on April 26th, 2018).

[11]  « The Saga of buying alcohol in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait », Raseef22 blog: (visited on April 26th, 2018).

[12]  Dan Bilefsky, « Briton, 74, Jailed for Having Alcohol in Saudi Arabia, Returns Home », The New York Times, November 11th, 2015 : (visited on April 26th, 2018).

[13]  « Can you drink alcohol in Saudi Arabia ? », Living in Saudi Arabia blog : (visited on April 26th, 2018).



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