Saudis, booze and the Manama causeway

MANY years ago, in order to curry favour with its citizens, the Saudi Arabian government funded the building of a causeway between the kingdom and Bahrain. While many reasons were advanced to explain this generosity, the truth was known to all in the region: it was a means whereby the liquor-starved Saudis could slip across to get pissed.

Which means that these days, there will be plenty of parched throats in Saudi Arabia; it is doubtful whether any Saudis would want to risk getting caught up in the political events in Bahrain just for the sake of a drink.

Both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are members of the Arab Gulf Co-operation Council – they hate it when the place is rightly called the Persian Gulf, with Iran being public enemy number 1 – and citizens of all six countries belonging to the council can travel freely to each others’ countries. For the Saudis it is a short drive to enjoy the taste of a cool beer – and Lord knows, in the searing heat of the Gulf region, nothing is more welcome.

Alcohol is banned in Saudi Arabia though one can find a bar in the house of every Saudi of any standing. These supplies are said to be imported in as furniture – many a royal has been summoned to the airport with the reverential advice, “Sir your furniture is leaking.” Saudi Arabia is the home of Islam, with the religion’s two holy cities, Mecca and Medina, within its borders, but the ban on booze has nothing to do with Islam although the religion does advise against the use of alcohol.

In 1953, a member of the royal family, Prince Mishari, in a drunken fit, shot and killed the British consul to the country. At that time, the British envoy to any part of the Middle East was only slightly lower in status than the Almighty so this act could not be taken lightly. King Ibn Saud offered the prince’s head as compensation and paid the required blood money to the envoy’s widow. But that was the end of booze sales in the kingdom; from that point onwards, ships were launched with a bottle of water, not champagne.

As per the law, any person caught with liquor or having consumed liquor will be either jailed or deported. A person who enjoys a drink now and then thus has to make the most of trips outside the country; a friend of mine consumed three bottles of Absolut vodka during a trip to Dubai to cover a golf tournament. He never went to the tournament, but wrote his reports after watching it on TV in an alcoholic haze. When I inquired why he was spending most of his time blotto, he replied that once he went back, it would mean another nine months of forced non-consumption until he took his annual holiday in Bombay.

In Bahrain, on the other hand, one can buy liquor in the bigger supermarkets. There are plenty of hotels built close to the causeway and it is very convenient for the Saudis and other visitors who arrive with the express purpose of getting tanked.

Thus, the Saudis will be watching the situation in Bahrain with the greatest interest. Not because they fear that the riots may spread to their own country, but more because they fear that they may not be able to quench their thirst at short notice if the little island falls under the control of radical elements.

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