cigarette pack Pragmatic Tolerance. Expat drinking, Saudi.
Shisha and Cigars, England.
cigarette pack

Saudi doesn't like people drinking alcohol, so it's illegal to import any booze product and there are many forms of punishment for those found in possession of it (6 months in jail and 250 lashes - 15 every week, then kicked out), or under the influence of it.

However many of the foreigners Saudi grants employment to are highly capable individuals, many living in gated compounds where they'll all be Americans, British and such, or just Company People. Brewing your own is quite simple for those who understand the process - and the raw ingredients are commonplace.

Making basic alcohol is no big deal, requiring no special equipment, so people produce that, while those who have the patience and space can produce quite good hooch. Within the expat communities the choice of stuff to drink is impressive. Best of all was their introduction of non alcoholic beer; it's real beer that's had the alcohol removed, so all you need do is put it back.

The causeway to Bahrain opened a whole new source as well as the opportunity to just drive over and enjoy the freedom to have a meal with quality wine. However in the rest of Saudi booze is smuggled into the country because a bottle of the real stuff can fetch up to $300. It's similar to cigarettes in Britain, where the temptation to exploit an opportunity to make serious money brings in otherwise law abiding individuals, as well as some pretty shady characters. Only difference being the penalties if you get caught.

It's not so much a case of two fingers to the authorities; the last thing anyone wants is to be caught drunk or in the possession of booze. Rather it's just a case of people from the same culture doing things in their own home or compound that's considered perfectly innocent where they came from.

The Saudi's don't allow them to work for the heck of it; they're needed, so while they know perfectly well what's going on, they turn a blind eye as long as it stays in their compound. It could be described as pragmatic tolerance.


Shisha pipes, or Hookah pipes are very much part of the Middle East culture - and that includes Pakistan. In those parts of the world business people frequently have a room at the back of their premises where friends, associates and so on can hang out and enjoy a smoke, usually accompanied by a cup of Chai or Qahua (tea or coffee) with food and cakes that go well with a Hookah.

In some parts they'll chew Quat, so siesta time - about 2 to 3 hours - is ideal. Often they'll return in evening to their business premises - and close off their day with a couple of pipes, some food and a laid back chat about anything.

Naturally many who settled in Britain carried on this tradition. Nothing big deal, just a place to chill out, make deals, network, arrange marriages and so on. They're not open to the public and even within their own community they're by invitation only.

This led to their children opening up Shisha cafes where anyone could use a pipe, have something to eat and something non alcoholic to drink. These have evolved and are now hugely profitable enterprises with very serious money put into the venue.

Shisha cafe in England.
A Shisha Cafe in England.

The smoking ban caused a bit of an issue, however in some towns they are exempt from the ban just as long as they don't offer tobacco. So - as in the photo - they continue to thrive.

The haze seen in the photo is caused by the charcoal as well as the herbal mix they use, so it would seem that form of second hand smoke is not in the least threatening because it contains no tobacco. Anyway they're clearly advertised for what they are, Shisha Cafes, so anyone who enters knows perfectly well what they're letting themselves in for.

While advertised on the internet, their clientele indicate it'd be useful to understand another language, probably Punjabi or Urdu - and like their elders they're places to chill out, network, make deals and be seen. The guys who serve customers are clued up to individuals who may bring their own tobacco to put on the pipe - and if that happens they're unceremoniously ejected.

They use proper Shisha pipes that sit on the floor with long hoses and the mouthpiece is a good 18 inches away from the water, so they're not mobile. You can't pop one into your pocket and even the portable ones can't be whipped out for a quick drag while waiting for a bus. In truth Shisha pipes are no threat whatsoever to the general public.

I've tried Shisha pipes, however the whole point about them is to sit back, relax and contemplate. To smoke an entire bowl of tobacco takes far too long and the tobacco is powerful stuff, so after about 20 minutes I quit.

That said I'm delighted these folks can meet, chat and just be themselves. Bit like the well heeled in London who can access cigar sampling rooms like this.

Cigar Room in London.
A Cigar Sampling Room in London.

These are still allowed in England and the money involved to create this space in central London, that includes a full blown air conditioning system - as witnessed by the discreet outlets in the ceiling - must have been massive.

Real cigars, certainly of the type you can sample here, are not inhaled. The tobacco contains no additives and what little smoke they produce is immediately dissipated. After all we're talking very rich, influential individuals and it's just plain rude to leave them having to dry clean their suits after a visit. The seats are covered in real leather and are wiped every day, so no lingering smell there either.

It's designed to be comfortable because a cigar can take an hour or longer to smoke - and they're inherently fire safe; they self extinguish within minutes if not puffed upon - and it's plain uncouth to do that. You savor a cigar, it gets better with gob on the end, it tastes wonderful because the tobacco in the very best - and those can cost north of £200 - is five or more years old.

So these places serve a similar purpose as the Shisha cafes, albeit at different ends of the economic spectrum. You go there to chat, to socialise, to make deals and to network. England got it right, while Scotland did not, however Scotland simply does not get the creme de la creme of business and industry - and our politicians are not of the same caliber as those in Westminster.

So like the authorities in Saudi, maybe a degree of pragmatic tolerance does no harm.

Smoking Scot
April 2019 (posted August 2019).

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