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The Beginning of the End

After almost 8 years working in Saudi Arabia, I have decided to leave the full-time employment of the Transport General Authority, and return home to the UK. I’m hoping to change the work/life balance, work part-time as a sub-consultant and get more quality family time. I’ve effectively handed in my notice and will finish at the end of February. That day seems to be approaching at 100 miles an hour!

If you were reading my early blogs when I first came here in 2016, you will recall that there was an onerous administrative procedure to become a resident and then for Elaine to follow my steps and join me. It now turns out that we have to go through a reversal process and “final exit” to de-register as Saudi residents and then re-enter British society. 1,000s of people do this every year, so it must be do-able, but the thought is daunting. We have to also wrap up 8 years of living an a series of apartments on western compounds where we have accumulated so much, not least of which is our wee dog Belle.

In this series of occasional blogs I have inter alia described our experiences here and made observations on Saudi life in general. We have seen so much change in such a short time, I feel privileged to have witnessed at first hand huge societal changes that in Europe took decades to achieve, often with bloodshed or civil unrest there. We have seen:

·           The elimination of the “Muttawa” (religious police)

·           A soft coup where one crown prince usurped another, and the Ritz-Carlton hotel became a 6* luxury prison

·           The reintroduction of cinemas after a 60+ year hiatus

·           Women being allowed to drive

·           Public outdoor entertainment, including light and sound shows

·           Normalisation of relations with neighbours Qatar

·           Publication of the “Vision 2030” programme which enables social improvements and diversification of the economy away from reliance on oil income

·           Involvement in the civil war in Yemen, including inbound missile strikes in Riyadh

·           Public holidays, National Day then Founding Day – until then the only holidays had been those associated with the muslim Eid feasts

·           Ending of public executions and public corporal punishment

·           Places where pedestrians can safely cross roads

·           De-criminalisation of religions other to the Islamic faith

·           VAT (but still no income tax)

·           Encouragement of sports participation for all

·           More choices in supermarkets, imported global foods

·           Anti-corruption crackdowns

·           Online shopping and meal delivery services

·           Introduction of meaningful public transport, and budget airlines

·           Women serving in shops, having changing rooms in clothes stores

·           Development of tourist sites

·           Women being allowed to dress less conservatively, should they wish

·           International sports events, including motor Grands Prix, golf tournaments, boxing and wrestling extravaganzas, and much more

·           Improvements in quality of retail and public services

·           Tourism visas (previously visas were restricted to ex-pat workers and religious pilgrims only)

·           Emergence of foods to cater for dietary restricted people and organic foods

·           The end of gender segregation in restaurants, shops and other public buildings

·           Live “west-end” shows

·           Emergence of an economic strategy and aim to be the regional powerhouse


But one thing has remained constant, the complete ban on the importation or consumption of alcohol or pork products.

Or has it? Here’s this week’s big announcement, copied from the Reuters press agency:

RIYADH, Jan 24 (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia is preparing to open its first alcohol store in the capital Riyadh which will serve exclusively non-Muslim diplomats, according to a source familiar with the plans and a document.

Customers will have to register via a mobile app, get a clearance code from the foreign ministry, and respect monthly quotas with their purchases, said the document, which was seen by Reuters.

The move is a milestone in the kingdom's efforts, led by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to open the ultra-conservative Muslim country for tourism and business as drinking alcohol is forbidden in Islam.

It is also part of wider plans known as Vision 2030 to build a post-oil economy.

The new store is located in Riyadh's Diplomatic Quarter, a neighbourhood where embassies and diplomats reside, and will be "strictly restricted" to non-Muslims, the document said.

It was unclear if other non-Muslim expatriates will have access to the store. Millions of expatriates live in Saudi Arabia but most of them are Muslim workers from Asia and Egypt.

A source familiar with the plans said the store is expected to open in the coming weeks.

Saudi Arabia has strict laws against drinking alcohol which can be punishable by hundreds of lashes, deportation, fines, or imprisonment and expatriates also face deportation. As part of the reforms, whipping has largely been replaced by jail sentences.

Alcohol has been available only through diplomatic mail or on the black market.

The government on Wednesday confirmed reports in state-controlled media that it was imposing new restrictions on alcohol imports within diplomatic consignments.

Its Center of International Communication (CIC) said the new regulations had been introduced to counter the illicit trade of alcohol goods and products received by diplomatic missions.

"This new process will continue to grant and ensure that all diplomats of non-Muslim embassies have access to these products in specified quotas," the CIC said in a statement to Reuters.

The statement did not address the planned alcohol store but said the new framework respected international diplomatic conventions.

Saudi Arabia, which was relatively closed off for decades, has in recent years relaxed strict social codes, such as segregating men and women in public places and requiring women to wear all-covering black robes, or abayas.

Prince Mohammed's tightening grip on power has been accompanied by changes which included opening the country for non-religious tourism, concerts and allowing women to drive, as well as a crackdown on dissent and political rivals.

Vision 2030 also includes developing local industries and logistics hubs, and aims at adding hundreds of thousands of jobs for Saudi nationals.

Well, I must admit that’s something I thought would be a longer time coming.

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* Call Alastair Fyfe directly on 07785 370074 (UK) or +966 503095212