Saudi Arabia is planning to break with its total ban on alcohol by offering strong drinks at a new resort scheduled to open next year, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Citing planning documents it reviewed and sources familiar with the project, the newspaper said in a Friday report that the resort will serve wine, cocktails and champagne.
It would mark the first time that alcohol is permitted for sale in the Islamic kingdom, where the possession or sale of alcohol is currently banned and punishable by prison, fines or even flogging.
The resort is to be located on the island of Sindalah and is part of the Red Sea megacity Neom, a plank of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s bid to diversify the Gulf state’s oil-dependent economy.
It will include a premium wine bar, another bar for cocktails, and a third for “champagne and desserts,” according to a January planning document seen by the Journal. Sources said the plan includes a retail wine shop with a “striking vertical wall display.”
There will also be a marina and a golf course.
The island is just a few miles from Egypt’s Sharm El Sheikh resort city, where alcohol is served.
Pictures in a master plan dated June showed a bartender pouring cocktails in front of what appeared to be bottles of vodka, whisky and wine. Guests were shown enjoying chilled bottles of champagne, the report said. Other images depicted women in bikinis and bare-chested men, an unusual sight in the conservative kingdom.
The document proclaimed that Sindalah will “attract some of the world’s most affluent and influential people,” according to the report.
Though the word “alcohol” is not mentioned in the planning document, sources close to the Neom project confirmed to the Journal that Sindalah will offer alcoholic drinks.
The prince, known by his acronym MBS, is bringing economic and cultural reforms aimed, in part, at attracting foreign tourists and business people to live in the country.
Neom is part of a $1 trillion tourism strategy to make Saudi Arabia a top global destination. MBS sees the project as preventing Saudis from spending their tourism money in other countries while also creating fresh industrial sectors in the economy as an alternative to oil, the Journal said, citing previous planning documents it reviewed.
Planners researched the value of alcohol in attracting foreigners to Neom, according to the report. Consumer surveys dated from 2018 found that among expatriates from various countries over 95 percent said alcohol is an important aspect to their quality of life when considering moving to the city. Another review focused on international hotel groups, with one anonymous comment saying an “alcohol license is essential for the success of the hotel.”
However, it is not certain that the Neom resort will open with alcoholic drinks on the menu. As home to Islam’s holiest sites of Mecca and Medina, for Saudi Arabia to allow alcohol would run the risk of a backlash from other Muslim countries.
Requests for comment from Saudi government officials went unanswered, the report said, adding that over the past few months Saudi officials have given mixed messages on the sale of alcohol.
In a May interview, Neom tourism head Andrew McEvoy told the National newspaper of Abu Dhabi that in trying to attract people to live and work in the project, “alcohol is definitely not off the table.”
However, the Saudi government then issued a statement saying Neom would be under the same sovereign laws as the rest of the country, but have special economic rules. McEvoy has since left the Neom project, his LinkedIn profile showed.
At a discussion panel during the World Economic Forum in May, Saudi Arabia’s Princess Haifa bint Mohammed al-Saud was asked about alcohol sales and said, “The short answer is we are going to continue with our current laws.”
MBS has eased some morality laws in recent years, including permitting women to drive, reopening cinemas and allowing sexes to mix freely.
First announced in 2017, Neom has consistently raised eyebrows for proposed flourishes like flying taxis and robot maids, even as architects and economists have questioned its feasibility.