Will an F1 race mark the end of Saudi Arabia’s alcohol ban?

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THIS YEAR Formula 1 drivers (F1) made a change: instead of celebrating after a race by splashing themselves with champagne, they switched to sparkling wine. Don’t be frugal—F1 is not that kind of sport, but because of a new sponsorship deal. Saudi authorities face a more difficult decision. The kingdom, which will host a race on December 5, bans alcohol. Some, however, think it might relax for the event. “Champagne is part of the ceremony,” said a royal advisor. “Jeddah [the host city] will not have seen anything like it.

Saudi observers predict drunken evenings on yachts and, perhaps, in select places on earth. This would be in line with the reforms of Muhammad bin Salman, the crown prince, who ignored Puritan clerics and cracked down on the morality police, while breaking taboos by opening cinemas and letting women drive. Concerts were largely banned not so long ago; now a woman DJs jive in public. The F1 race could mark the lifting of the alcohol ban, believes a senior official.

The kingdom is reconsidering alcohol as it tries to lure tourists away from destinations like the United Arab Emirates (United Arab Emirates), which has long allowed foreigners to consume and legalized alcohol consumption for everyone last year. Prince Muhammad invested in cruise ships that serve alcohol offshore and created vast royal reserves with their own (non-Islamic) regulations. He organizes a Red Sea festival where spirits flow. Luxury hotels rise up the coast and close to tourist sites inland. A launch party in October featured illicit sangria spiced with whiskey (which deserves to be banned just for the bad taste alone) and a rave on the sand.

Some of Prince Muhammad’s advisers want him to enlist liberal clerics to help explain to Saudis why what once was haram (forbidden) could soon be halal (permit). “The sin [of drinking wine] is greater than the benefit, ”the Quran says rather nicely. It does not prescribe punishment for this act, although Saudi judges are known to sentence offenders to 80 lashes or more. For centuries, the early caliphs held parties with alcohol and left jurists arguing over whether Islam prohibited all alcoholic beverages or only fermented grapes.

“We are opening our country to the world,” said Khalid al-Faisal, a royal who oversees the race in Jeddah. Still, there is reason to believe that the podium, at least, will be dry. Bahrain, Qatar and United Arab Emirates all organized car races and used more tasteless carbonated drinks, such as sparkling rose water, at the winner’s stand. Years ago a F1 Saudi Arabia State Airline sponsored team celebrated (in public) with orange juice. It made their clothes as wet as champagne would have made it.

This article appeared in the Middle East and Africa section of the print edition under the headline “Drink and Drive”


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