THIS YEAR the drivers of Formula 1 (F1) made a change: instead of celebrating after a race by spraying each other with champagne, they switched to sparkling wine. Not to be frugal—F1 is not that kind of sport—but because of a new sponsorship deal. Officials in Saudi Arabia face a harder decision. The kingdom, which will host a race on December 5th, bans alcohol. Some, though, think it may loosen up for the event. “Champagne is part of the ceremony,” says a royal adviser. “Jeddah [the host city] will have seen nothing like it.”
Saudi-watchers predict boozy parties on yachts and, perhaps, at select venues on land. That would be in keeping with the reforms of Muhammad bin Salman, the crown prince, who has ignored puritanical clerics and curbed the morality police, while breaking taboos by opening up cinemas and letting women drive. Concerts were largely prohibited not long ago; now female DJs jive in public. The F1 race could mark the lifting of the alcohol ban, says a senior official.
The kingdom is reconsidering alcohol as it tries to lure tourists away from destinations like the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which has long allowed foreigners to partake and legalised drinking for everyone last year. Prince Muhammad has invested in cruise ships that serve alcohol offshore and carved out vast royal preserves with their own (non-Islamic) bylaws. He hosts a Red Sea festival where spirits flow. Luxury hotels are going up on the coast and near tourist sites inland. A launch party for one in October featured illicit sangría laced with whisky (which deserves to be banned for 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 was once haram (forbidden) may soon be halal (permitted). “The sin [of drinking wine] is greater than the benefit,” says the Koran rather mildly. It does not prescribe a punishment for the act, though Saudi judges have been known to sentence offenders to 80 or more lashes. For centuries the early caliphs hosted parties with alcohol and let jurists argue over whether Islam banned all booze or just that from fermented grapes.
“We’re opening our country up to the world,” says Khalid al-Faisal, a royal overseeing the race in Jeddah. Still, there are reasons to think that the podium, at least, will be dry. Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE have all hosted car races—and used blander fizzy drinks, such as sparkling rose water, on the winner’s stand. Years ago an F1 team sponsored by Saudi Arabia’s state airline celebrated (in public) with orange juice. It got their clothes just as wet as champagne would have done.
This article appeared in the Middle East & Africa section of the print edition under the headline “Drinking and driving”
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