23 May 2008
By Magdi Abdelhadi
BBC News, Cairo
A decision by the Saudi owner of the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Cairo to ban the sale of alcohol and destroy millions of dollars worth of beverages has sparked a debate in Egypt.
The international company which runs the hotel has urged Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Brahim - a relative of the Saudi king - to revoke his decision, fearing it could drive away Western tourists and may even lead to the hotel losing its five-star rating.
The Grand Hyatt occupies one of the most expensive sites overlooking the River Nile. It is only minutes from the diplomatic quarter, where the British and American embassies are located.
Like all five-star hotels in Egypt, alcohol used to be available there - but not any more. It is unclear what prompted the owner Sheik Al Brahim to take this controversial measure.
Staff at the hotel are reluctant to talk about the whole affair. But a barman told me that they now only serve soft drinks and that he saw with his own eyes how expensive whiskey, liqueurs and fine wines were emptied down the drains of the hotel.
He said it took his colleagues a whole day to go through the hotel's entire stock of alcoholic drinks. Does he feel sorry for that, I asked? He chuckled.
The move has sparked fears that other hotels may follow suit, which could hit the tourism industry, one of the pillars of the Egyptian economy.
Egyptian columnist Suleiman Gouda wrote that if the owner wanted to invest in the international tourism industry, then he had to play by the well-known rules of the business.
Alternatively, he wrote, quoting an unnamed Arab head of state, he should sell his hotels to those who are prepared to do so.
Supporters of the decision say Egypt is a Muslim country and foreign visitors should respect local custom.
But critics say just as Muslims expect to be served Halal food on international flights, they should be prepared to respect the desires of their Western guests.
And Egyptian liberals see the incident as a clear example of how Saudi Arabia uses its financial muscle to spread its own puritanical brand of Islam to other countries.
Egyptian author Ezzat Al Qamhawy wrote that the incident was only an example of what Saudi investment in Egypt can do.
"It can strangulate the Egyptian tourism industry... by imposing Islam on tourists who are not Muslims, and compulsory drunkenness on the Muslim fish of the River Nile," he wrote, referring to reports that the stock was emptied in the river when the owner ordered staff to get rid of it.
The question of alcohol is a sensitive one in this predominantly conservative Muslim society.
The vast majority of Egyptians do not drink, and their government cannot be seen to pressure the owner of the Grand Hyatt for fear of giving the Islamist opposition ammunition to attack it for being un-Islamic.
Yet at the same time it is wary of anything that can hurt tourism, which brings hundreds of millions of dollars every year.
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