A solid majority of Oman’s consultative Shura Council on Tuesday voted to amend a law effectively banning the sale and consumption of alcohol in a case that has created a heated debate in the country. A poll on the issue on an English language news site was the subject of a viral message on the WhatsApp messaging service calling on citizens to vote for the move to prevent expatriates from hijacking it.
The Shura Council does not have the final say in legislative matters, and observers say that the proposal is likely to be shelved, but its introduction and the subsequent debate demonstrates a trend in Gulf states’ parliaments to make the abolition of alcohol a hallmark of their powers and a symbol of democratic practice. Such moves have overwhelming public support and few in Oman and other Gulf states publicly oppose such legislation.
The sultanate’s much-respected Grand Mufti Shaikh Ahmad Bin Hamad Al Khalili has also publicly expressed support for the move and has publicly criticised “decision-makers” for not banning alcohol.
Kuwait, the Gulf country with the most empowered parliament, was the first to face abolition. Alcohol was prohibited by parliament in 1983 in a three-stage process starting in 1963, the year the National Assembly was established. Parliament first imposed its regulation, then its banning, then criminalised its consumption.
In Bahrain, lawmakers in June unanimously approved an urgent proposal calling on the government to come up with a timeline for gradually phasing out alcohol until it is totally prohibited. MPs in the elected chamber of the kingdom’s parliament attempted a similar move in 2010 but were blocked by the upper chamber, the Shura Council, which is appointed by the king.
Those who supported the ban argued that it was resulting in immoral activities and that the whole sector needed a clean-up to ensure that Bahrain was a family tourism friendly destination.
Hoteliers have rejected the claims and referred to the huge investments in the industry and to the economic benefits. Qatar’s drive to promote itself as a tourism destination for Arab and Muslim families has led to the introduction of a ban on alcohol.
Last year, luxury hotels were told that alcohol could no longer be served around their swimming pools or on their beaches. The decision put an end to a practice that allowed these hotels to serve alcohol in all their bars and restaurants. Two years earlier, a ban on alcohol at the man-made Pearl-Qatar in December 2011 stirred a deep controversy among restaurants and visitors.
While some restaurants managers felt they could not secure enough revenues to continue and preferred to shut down, retail leasing officers said that the ban resulted in a higher traffic of visitors to the development project. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are the only Gulf countries where the sale and consumption of alcohol is totally banned. Alcohol is however believed to be widely available in both countries through bootlegging networks that sell the banned items at heavily marked-up prices.