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Could alcohol be allowed at Saudi’s NEOM?

Saudi city project and future tourist attraction NEOM will be its own authority

The issue of legalising the sale of alcohol in Saudi Arabia is “not off the table”, according to a senior executive from one of the kingdom’s most high profile giga projects.

“On alcohol, Saudi has a view NEOM will be its own authority, that’s not off the table,” Andrew McEvoy, managing director tourism at NEOM, told delegates during a discussion at the Arabian Travel Market in Dubai on Monday.

NEOM is one of Saudi Arabia’s prime giga projects as part of its Vision 2030 plans to diversify the kingdom’s economy and attract over 70 million tourists annually.

Built on the Red Sea in northwest Saudi Arabia, the project will contribute 180 billion Saudi riyals ($48 billion) to Saudi GDP by 2030 and it is believed it will also have autonomy to govern its own affairs and laws, leaving the door open to the possibility of legalising the sale of alcohol.

Alcohol is currently banned in Saudi Arabia and the issue of whether it would be legalised in NEOM has been debated and speculated on since the project was announced by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in October 2017. “We can do 98 percent of the standards applied in similar cities, but there is two percent we can’t do, like, for example, alcohol,” the Crown Prince told Bloomberg in 2017. “A foreigner, if they desire alcohol, can either go to Egypt or Jordan.”

However, commentary coming from senior executives has eased over the years. Joseph Bradley, CEO of NEOM’s Tech and Digital Holding Company, told the AFP press agency in October 2021 that this may be a possibility.

“What we get asked a lot is this whole notion around is there going to be alcohol, what are you going to do around this?” he said in an interview at the Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh. “To be clear, NEOM is meant to be competitive. We want the world’s best and brightest to come to NEOM.”

“I have not seen the specifics of the law in regards to [alcohol]… But I can tell you very, very clearly that everyone understands that we’re going to build a founding law that attracts the tourism market, that attracts the tech market, that attracts the manufacturing market,” he added.

NEOM is on track to start operating in 2025 and the details of its founding laws are due to be approved by the project’s board within the next two years, AFP reported.