There are extremely harsh penalties involved if you get caught importing or selling booze or drugs in Saudi Arabia, which doesn't mean no one gets wasted. It just means that everyone is very, very careful.
Afghan hash imported into Saudi Arabia. Photos courtesy of the interviewee
“Abdullah” sounds nervous over the phone. He nearly didn't want to talk to me in the first place, even though I'm not using his real name in this article. 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 for secular people trying to live their lives. However, this doesn't compare to the dangers of doing what Abudllah does and illegally importing or selling drugs or booze, crimes for which perpertrators can be thrown in jail, lashed, or even publicly executed. Increasingly, the mutawa are the ones responsible for finding and catching those deemed guilty of these crimes against Sharia.
Regardless of the law and the heavy penalties for breaking it, liquor and many other illicit substances are available in Saudi Arabia—it's just a question of knowing where to look. A rare study on the topic, published by the World Health Organization 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, which include liquor, cocaine, and prostitutes.
Despite its official status as one of the Middle East's "dry" countries, Saudi Arabians have a reputation for being some of the biggest lovers of black-label whiskey 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 I 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. It's there you can find drugs, alcohol, prostitutes, guns, or anything else you'd 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 it.
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." (By law, the police can't rummage through baggage headed toward embassies.) “The government knows 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 claims are "loaded" with alcohol.
The likes of Abdullah apparently buy this booze in bulk from embassy officials—20 bottles a month at around 400 riyals (about $100) each. Dealers can sell these to thirsty locals for at least quadruple the price; the cost of a bottle of vodka can range from around 1,000 to 3,000 riyals ($265 to $800), depending on the size of the bottle and quality of the product.
Due to his current predicament, Abdullah has stopped selling booze for the moment. 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 channelled funds to the mutawa to recruit new members 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 mutawas' dominance 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 theory 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.”
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