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BAHRAIN: Debate on Proposed Alcohol Ban Far From Over

Suad Hamada

MANAMA, Mar 24 2010 (IPS) - Legislators say it would encourage more Islamic behaviour and cure social ills, but critics say a complete ban by Bahrain on selling alcohol would mean big losses in tax revenues and lead to a black market in liquor.

One of Bahrain's vibrant nights, where alcohol is served openly. Credit: Sandeep Sigh Grewal/IPS

One of Bahrain's vibrant nights, where alcohol is served openly. Credit: Sandeep Sigh Grewal/IPS

The lower house of Parliament, where elected conservative Sunni and Shiite lawmakers make up the majority, passed on Mar. 10 a bill that would prohibit the importation, manufacture, sale and drinking of alcohol in this Gulf country.

If also passed by the upper house, it will become law. The upper house, whose members are appointed, has until the end of its term before elections, or around May, to take up the bill or it will be cancelled.

This bill on an alcohol ban, which these legislators have been trying to get passed since Parliament was set up in 2002, would reverse a situation where the country has openly been selling liquor for 50 years.

In Bahrain where half of its more than 1.1 million people are foreigners working in various fields from top managers to labourers, liquor is served at hotels, foreign clubs, five-star restaurants and sold in selected shops. Alcohol is sold to all patrons.

“With an alcohol-free society, we can respect our constitution that states Bahrain is an Islamic country and eliminate many social and marital problems, especially fatal traffic accidents,” Ibrahim Bosandal, a lower house member and strong supporter of the ban, said in an interview.

But in this debate between conservatives and liberals, not everyone agrees with him.

Jamal Fakhro, a member of upper house and a businessman, argues that banning alcohol would not make Bahrainis better Muslims than those from other Islamic countries. “Many restaurants are selling ham in Bahrain, but that doesn’t mean that Muslims are eating ham or that Bahrainis aren’t conservative or religious,” he pointed out in an interview.

He explains that people should be allowed to lead their own lifestyles and have religious freedom, adding that conservatives would anyway not buy alcohol under any circumstances — with or without a ban by the state.

In fact, he says, the ban would not only hurt the hotel and tourism business but the diversity and openness of Bahrain. Many non-Muslim businessmen have also chosen to invest in Bahrain because of its openness and tolerance toward people of different faiths, he added.

In the Arabian Peninsula, only Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have a ban on alcohol selling. Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates — except the emirate of Sharjah — also do not have alcohol bans in place. They are available for purchase to non-Muslims and to foreigners.

Bosandal says losses from alcohol revenues – many entertainment venues rely on liquor to attract customers — can be recovered from clean tourism and industrial projects.

But the government in fact stands to lose the significant revenues it has been from the importation of alcohol.

The Bahraini government made 9.8 million Bahrain dinars (25.9 million U.S. dollars) in taxes from the importation of 7.8 million Bahrain dinars (20.6 million dollars) worth of liquor products by seven licensed companies in 2005, according to the only available statistics on this disclosed by Minister of Commerce and Industry Hassan Fakhro in 2006.

He was forced to make these figures public to answer a parliamentary question on this tax revenue issue, although the government is usually mum about such data.

Fakhro attributed the huge revenues to the 125 percent tax put on the financial value of the liquor products. Moreover, the revenues have most likely doubled with the rapid population growth in Bahrain from more than 888,000 people in 2005 to more than 1.1 million this year.

In his written response to Parliament, Fakhro also said that 17.3 million litres of alcohol were brought into Bahrain in 2005 and 14.9 million litres in 2004. Most of the seven companies importing alcohol own hotels.

Former lower house member Abas Hassan was the only lawmaker who openly rejected the ban on alcohol throughout his four-year term, which ended in 2006. Such a ban, he points out, would only create a black market for alcohol and encourage hotels to circumvent the law and cater to their customers.

Under the bill passed by the lower house, alcohol would only be allowed for medical, research and scientific purposes. A fine of around 1,200 U.S. dollars and a jail term are the punishments imposed on violators.

Studies have highlighted the fact that the consumption of alcohol is in fact higher in countries that ban it, Hassan adds.

In Saudi Arabia, the total ban on alcohol has seen smuggling continue from the UAE, with which it shares a long border. In one case, Saudi authorities foiled an attempt to smuggle in 3,190 liquor bottles hidden in giant concrete sticks in 2009, according to ‘Al Riyadh’ newspaper.

In truth, many Saudis benefit from the short distance between their country and Bahrain – through the causeway that links them – and enjoy here what their government bans, including driving by women, going to cinemas and alcohol consumption.

In tolerant Bahrain, it is common to see a conservative couple sitting next to a table with western nationals or Arabs having alcohol with meals at five-star restaurants.

But if liberal lawmakers and businessmen are against a law banning alcohol, majority of the public appear to support the ban and accept it.

A teen student, Fatima Al Ghareeb, does not care much about the ban because alcohol is not part of her life. “I support MPs in their calling for a ban. But I hardly notice the effect of alcohol in my community as all the people I know don’t go to places serving alcohol.”

Sultan Mohammed, a 43-year-old government employee, thinks the ban is unlikely to pass the upper house, saying legislators are just pushing it to increase their chances during the election expected this year. “I support the ban but not lawmakers behind it and why they chose such a period to push a religious-oriented draft law.”

A campaign launched in the social networking site Facebook by Bahraini youth, though the creation of an Arabic-language group, has attracted nearly 3,600 fans so far to pressure the upper house to approve the liquor ban bill.

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