How Saudis outwit customs to smuggle in booze


The Twitter account of Saudi customs showcases the lengths to which would-be booze smugglers go to in their efforts to bring alcohol into the country. However, not everyone gets caught. Our Saudi Observer tells us how he managed to get his hands on such a rare - and illegal - commodity.

A man who tried to sneak bottles of alcohol into Saudi Arabia. Tweet posted by Saudi customs. 

Whether it's by taping bottles of whiskey to their thighs or hiding wine bottles in petrol tanks, some Saudis will go to extraordinary lengths to sneak alcohol into the country. Yet despite the baffling array of outlandish methods used, most attempts are thwarted by custom officers. According to a local source, these small-time traffickers usually cross into the country from Bahrain. However, alcohol is reportedly trafficked into Saudi Arabia on a larger scale from the United Arab Emirates.

A bottle of whiskey found in a petrol tank. Screen grab of a tweet posted by Saudi customs. 

"In Bahrain, there are entire streets for Saudis to get drunk in bars"

Many Saudis head to Bahrain during the weekend to get drunk. They can also go to Dubai, but that's more of a family destination. In Bahrain, there are entire streets for Saudis to get drunk in bars. Many of them come from Riyadh, having journeyed more than 400 km to give free rein to indulgences that are banned in Saudi Arabia. They don't just come for the alcohol. They also come to have sex outside of marriage. Prostitution is everywhere in Bahrain, evidence of which can be seen by going into any one of those bars. There are Russian prostitutes, as well as Moroccan and Chinese ones. There have also been Saudi prostitutes for a little while now, but they're very expensive. You'd need at least 500 euros to spend some 'time' with one of them.

In order to head back to Saudi Arabia, one has to cross the border. You'd better hope a weekend of debauchery hasn't left you in too much of a state, otherwise your car will be completely searched. Every time I go to Bahrain, I take care not to drink too much the night before. As a result, I've never been thoroughly searched. They only make me open the boot.

Beer cans disguised as Pepsi cans. Screen grab of a tweet posted by Saudi customs.

"You had better know people that work in customs to get alcohol into Saudi Arabia"

You're better off knowing people that work in customs to get alcohol into Saudi Arabia. And even if you have one or two contacts, it's still a risky venture. I never took the risk. But I have friends who are more reckless than I am, who slipped a bottle of alcohol into the bottom of their suitcase and claimed that it was a bottle of olive oil when a scan of their bags gave them away. If they got caught, they didn't necessarily risk being put in prison. Customs can be lenient when it comes to one or two bottles meant for personal use. But I prefer getting my hands on alcohol by using other methods.

"A bottle of wine costs around 200 euros"

In Saudi Arabia, one way to get booze is through the diplomats who work for foreign embassies. They have diplomatic immunity. They import huge quantities of alcohol for so-called personal consumption, and then resell whatever they don't drink at an exorbitant price. A bottle of wine can cost more than 200 euros. They get rich, that's for sure, but not as much as the smugglers who illegally import alcohol. They can make millions. A pack of beer that costs 10 euros in Europe can cost upwards of 200 euros in Saudi Arabia! And you often struggle to find it. You need good contacts to stand a chance. When I lived in Saudi Arabia, I had the number of a 'dealer'. I would ring him hoping that he had some alcohol in stock, but sometimes I had to wait several days.

A young woman arrested at an airport while trying to enter Saudi Arabia. The tweet posted by Saudi customs points out that she's 'Asian'.

"Some alcohol is illegally produced inside the country"

Some alcohol is also produced inside Saudi Arabia despite the fact that it's illegal. It's far cheaper to make alcohol than buy it, but the quality is far worse. I never bought any locally-made alcohol myself. However, I know that it's easy to find some in immigrant neighbourhoods. They sell it under the table. Arak is sold in a plastic bottle, for example. But you have to watch out for tainted alcohol!

Of course, you can't find alcohol in public areas in Saudi Arabia. You only find it in certain private areas. You also have to know when and where to go, too. When a friend of mine used to throw alcohol-fueled parties at his place, my invitation was meant for me, and me only. It wouldn't have even crossed my mind to invite a friend, or even worse, an acquaintance. These parties, usually held in second homes, must be kept under wraps.

A badly-hidden bottle seized by Saudi customs at the border.

Strangely, the Saudis who I know and who - like me - drink booze, very rarely speak out against the laws banning the sale and consumption of alcohol in the kingdom. They prefer to live in a country that shuns alcohol, opting instead to visit Bahrain or other countries to drink beyond the bounds of reason."