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Riyadh Air tantalises Paris with promise of ‘Saudi hospitality’

As a 'no legacy' airline, there is room to try a different approach – and that could mean in-flight alcohol

A Riyadh Air Boeing with its shiny new livery Reuters
A Riyadh Air Boeing with its shiny new livery

Tony Douglas, chief executive of the new Saudi airline Riyadh Air, was one of the stars of the Paris Airshow, offering up tantalising details of how the service will look and operate when it launches in early 2025.

The striking livery of lavender-indigo with cursive Arabic lettering got its first international outing; services to European cities will be a top priority; there will be no first class cabin on board; and digital connectivity will be integral in-flight and in the booking and boarding processes. All very interesting.

On board there will be “full service”, Douglas said, with the airline displaying an “absolute obsession with the guest experience”.

Passengers would enjoy “Saudi hospitality at 38,000 feet,” he added. Fascinating.

But in none of the many interviews I watched was he asked the question on the minds of many who travel frequently to the kingdom: what will be served from the drinks trolley? Virgin or Bloody Mary?

It’s an important question, given the huge transformation underway in Saudi Arabia, which has seen the religious police de-fanged, women behind the driving wheel, mixed-gender dining and entertainment, and the return of cinema.

Despite all this commendable progress, there is still no change in the official attitude towards alcohol, which remains “haram” inside the kingdom (except on foreign diplomatic premises).

Illegal possession, or attempts to import, risks a prison term for the offender, or worse, depending on the circumstances.

This is not a controversial issue within the country. I know many Saudi citizens who like the odd tipple when they travel, and if they are going long-haul to Europe or the USA will take the short connecting hop from Riyadh to Dubai to sample the in-flight liquid luxury of Emirates, rather than dry Saudia.

But I’ve detected no great clamour among Saudis for alcohol at home. In fact, there are many who would be rigidly opposed to any change in the law to allow alcohol.

Any pressure there is to change this situation is coming from the top and from abroad.

Many in the generation of policymakers and advisers around Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman pushing through the hugely ambitious Vision 2030 strategy, regard alcohol as a big symbolic step in the transformation process (alongside public freedom of worship for non-Muslims, but that is another story altogether).

It could also be vital to attract the well-healed international tourists and business people who will be Riyadh’s prime market if Douglas is to reach his ambitious passenger targets.

The official line from Saudi policymakers involved in the big tourism projects is that their market research shows that few potential visitors will be deterred from coming to the kingdom by the unavailability of alcohol.

Privately, they refer to other estimates showing there could be a potential hit of as much as 20 percent.

How big a factor in a global jet setter’s decision to fly Riyadh or another airline is the availability of alcohol?

John Strickland, one of the best independent aviation analysts in the business, tells me: “It would be a serious thing for western travellers. We know Saudi has big ambitions to develop beyond religious tourism, and the likes of Emirates has shown it is possible to operate within the bounds of Islamic integrity, and still offer alcohol to those who want it.”

He points out too that there are a number of airlines, in addition to Saudia, that do not serve alcohol. Many are in Islamic countries, but not exclusively.

Ryanair, he notes, has just banned alcohol on some flights to the Mediterranean fleshpot resorts – not out of any religious piety, but due to increased instances of booze-fueled air-rage.

How might it work in practice?

Some Muslims are uncomfortable in the presence of alcohol, so it might be necessary to restrict the areas in which it is served. In addition to business, premium and economy, is it possible there will be a dry “halal” cabin class?

Mr Douglas has said in the past that alcohol “might” be available in-flight. This echoes the ambivalent line from senior executives at the big Vision 2030 giga-projects like Neom, the Red Sea Development and Al Ulla, who are discreet to the point of silence on the matter. (Riyadh Air too – an email to their media department went unanswered.)

But there is a vague consensus in the kingdom that drinking alcohol will eventually be allowed, in controlled circumstances – such as for tourists in the giga-projects or in designated hotels frequented by foreign business people.

If that happens, I’d expect Riyadh Air to be among the first in the bar queue. Douglas stressed in Paris that Riyadh Air will be a “no legacy” airline.

Frank Kane is AGBI Editor-at-large

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