Afghan hash imported into Saudi Arabia. (Photos courtesy of the interviewee)
On the phone, Saudi contraband dealer Abdullah* sounds nervous. He was extremely hesitant about talking to me in the first place. His paranoia stems from the fact that a close friend was recently arrested for possessing some of the hash Abdullah had sold him, and now – he believes – the authorities are "out to get" him, too. Which is why he's recently shut down his Facebook, deactivated his email account and gone into hiding from the "mutawa" – the country's religious police.
I've been an expat in Saudi Arabia for almost 15 years, so I'm well accustomed to how frustrating its hardline Islamic restrictions can be from a consumer's point of view. However, this doesn't compare to the dangers of illegally dealing or importing drugs or booze, which can see perpertrators thrown in jail, lashed or publicly executed. Increasingly, the mutawa are the ones responsible for finding and catching those deemed guilty of these crimes against sharia.
However, regardless of the law and its heavy penalties, liquor and many other illicit substances have been available for some time – it's just a question of knowing where to look. A rare study on the topic, published by the World Health Organisation in 1998, found that 24 percent of patients at a hospital in Riyadh had abused alcohol. More recently, WikiLeaks exposed the royal family's wild parties, US diplomats reporting back to their superiors with tales of liquor, cocaine and prostitutes.
Despite its official status as one of the Middle East's few "dry" countries, Saudi Arabians have a reputation for being some of the biggest lovers of black label whisky and hashish in the region. I wanted to find out how true this was, and how easy it is to access illegal substances if you don't happen to be second in line to the country's throne, so called up Abdullah – who is heavily involved in both the alcohol and drugs trade within the kingdom.
“Most of our shit originates in Afghanistan,” he informs me. “It’s a long chain of selling that starts with nomads in Afghani fields. They grow it, then it gets hidden between crates away from the mutawa and goes from seller to seller like a spider web – and then some goes on to Karantina.”
Karantina – or the "hot spot", as it’s known locally – is an area close to downtown Jeddah where the majority of the illicit trading happens. Drugs, alcohol, prostitutes, guns – in Karantina, you can get all the things you might expect to find in a warlord's lair or at any black market worth its weight in bad vibes. Even the mutawa don’t go there, for fear of getting killed.
“No one goes there without a gun. Like, seriously, man, it’s so dangerous,” Abdullah tells me. “If you went there by yourself, you’d probably get raped or killed. Unless you know people, you’re fucked.”
A stash of alcohol, cash and pills that would get Abdullah into a lot of trouble were he to be found with them.
As for alcohol, he was almost certain that foreigners use the consulates to sneak liquor into the country. “It all starts with the embassies and ambassadors," he says. “Diplomats' baggage, man – the mutawa can’t check it," referring to the fact that, by law, the police cannot rummage through baggage headed towards embassies. "The government know about it, but they can’t just raid the embassies or they’d get fucked over by those countries," he continues, alluding to the importance of Saudi’s ties with the likes of the US and the UK, whose embassies he claimed were "loaded" with alcohol.
The likes of Abdullah apparently buy this booze in bulk from embassy officials – 20 bottles a month at around 400 Riyals (£70) each. They then sell it on to desperate locals for at least quadruple the price; the cost of a bottle of vodka can range from around 1,000 to 3,000 Riyals (£170 to £510), depending on the size of the bottle and quality of the product. “But I’ve personally stopped selling recently because of the mutawa," Abdullah explains.
The threat from the religious police has grown exponentially in Saudi since the Arab Spring, he tells me. Fearful of protests breaking out within their own country, the royal family apparently funded the formation of large groups of mutawa in a huge covert operation to keep the country in order. And their tactic seems to have worked, as the few protests that did take place in Saudi petered out into nothing, helping it avoid the turmoil that hit other countries in the region. However, Abdullah tells me that, while it may have helped prevent the death and destruction seen in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, the mutawa's presence has had other consequences.
“Even Saudis fear for themselves here now," he explains. "Yes, OK, it's a given that you expect us all to keep to our religion, but the mutawa just want us all to shut up and stay at home. No parties, no cruising with friends, nothing.” This only serves to fuel black market demand. In many cases, people turn to taking drugs in the relative safety of their own homes as an alternative to being hounded for having a little fun in public.
I put that to Abdullah and he agrees. “The more religious they grow up, the harder they rebel,” he assures me, referring to the kids in discreet revolt against the mutawa and the country's laws. “And now it’s more strict, I have more Saudi customers than ever.”
*Not real name.
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