Legislators in Oman continue to negotiate over the country’s booze laws, after the Shura Council endorsed an outright ban with an 84% vote. Despite the obvious enthusiasm in the lower electoral body, the stiff law has been a tougher sell to high officials. One official told Gulf News Monday that there were no plans to institute the ban, but that other regulations may be considered. Consuming and selling alcohol is highly discouraged in many Muslim communities.
The Shura initially passed the ban in December, and became an immediate lightning rod for the country’s attention. The Times of Oman even wrote that coverage of the ban proposal drove traffic to an all-time high. Their investigation also suggested that the ban was relatively popular: over 90% of polled readers supported banning alcohol in Oman, and three out of every four Facebook comments on ban-related articles expressed similar sentiments. While Oman doesn’t have a particularly advanced drinking culture, the number of people seeking treatment for alcohol dependency has increased in recent years. Nonetheless, many who opposed the ban pointed to U.S. history to illustrate that prohibitions lead to more chaos, not less.
But public approval for strict alcohol policies hasn’t forced the government’s hand. It seems likely that the prime motivator here is economic. Oman has been making significant strides in tourism, frequently snagging slots on must-see lists. Insiders believe its relative political calm may win over travelers who feel intimidated by its more turbulent neighbors, or who can’t quite afford the pleasures of Doha or Dubai. So far, Oman’s optimism about international tourism is backed up by stats: from 2014-2015, visitors to the country increased by a staggering 12%.
Of course, tourists tend to imbibe like they’re off the clock. The most enthusiastic supporters of a potential booze ban say that dry laws could actually boost tourism, since visitors will appreciate giving their body a break while soaking in the sights. There are certainly examples that suggest otherwise: when alcohol was outlawed in certain areas of Qatar in 2011, several restaurants that catered to foreigners shuttered after major profit loss. But it’s also true that Oman tourism is based on cultural exploration rather than revelry, so visitors may be more willing to accept local ordinances. Still, in light of low oil prices, officials are presumably reluctant to experiment with such a sizable chunk of Oman’s GDP.
Whether or not alcohol availability would affect international business and investment is a relative draw. The United Arab Emirates have consciously tailored their laws to be friendly to foreign businesses, and in turn have the most relaxed alcohol laws in the Persian Gulf. But Saudi Arabia’s strict, allover ban has hardly slowed down business there.
There will be a black market for alcohol in Oman regardless of the laws there, and the penalties are likely to be less stiff for non-Muslims. In this way, the people who stand to be hurt most by any such laws laws in Oman may well be alcoholics themselves: the more that anti-alcohol attitudes are codified into law, the less accessible support will be.