The lights are dim and the game is on loud at a sports bar in downtown Riyadh. Women perched on bar stools sip blueberry mojitos in front of wall-to-wall screens, erupting in cheers when their soccer team scores.
This being Saudi Arabia, of course there's one thing missing: alcohol. The drinks are virgin because the country bans booze.
But as the kingdom goes through an intoxicating social transformation, Saudis are starting to wonder — some with excitement, many with concern — whether another hallmark of their country's strict interpretation of Islam might start to disappear.
Under de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom has drawn international castigation with the murder of a U.S.-based newspaper columnist and the jailing of activists and dissident clerics. Yet there's also been a loosening of things that help foster the leadership's narrative of an economic and social revolution.
A few years ago it would have been unthinkable that women would be able to mix freely in public with men, let alone drive. While the government has said nothing about legal drinking or indeed whether it would apply only to foreigners, even the fact that Saudis are talking about the possibility is remarkable.
"We're in a totally different era," said Saleh, 39. As is typical in the kingdom, he asked not to be identified by his full name so he could speak freely. "We thought there won't be movie theaters in the country, that women won't enter sports stadiums or drive — now it's all reality and very natural."
Executives have told some foreign visitors to expect restrictions on booze to loosen in Saudi Arabia next year. Foreigners working closely with government entities are hearing the government is working on import licenses.
Prince Mohammed's grand goal is to plug Saudi Arabia into the global marketplace and create a destination that's attractive to international talent, as Dubai has done. The prince wants businesses to flourish and tourists to flock to grand Red Sea resorts he plans to build.
Saudi officials didn't respond to requests seeking comment.
In an interview with Bloomberg in October, the prince said he couldn't find a foreign chief executive willing to move to Saudi Arabia to run his charitable foundation because they preferred living in Dubai. Among the benefits, non-Muslims can drink there under license, and restrictions were even lifted during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. Residents can now order alcohol at licensed restaurants anytime.
"The quality of life and lifestyle are not good," the prince said. "They want to work one week in Dubai and one week in Saudi Arabia. Come on, what's happening?" Any changes, though, should be "without moving from Saudi-based laws and religion," he said.
It's not like booze is unavailable; it's just that Saudi Arabia looks like the United States during Prohibition. There's a thriving black market, and home brew is sold openly at makeshift bars in residential compounds that cater to foreigners.
A bottle of smuggled wine costs about 800 riyals ($213); hard liquor such as whiskey or gin goes for closer to 1,200 riyals. The diplomatic quarters of Riyadh — a gated neighborhood filled with embassies — plays host to barely concealed parties. Some Saudi homes are so well-stocked that a host would ask which kind of white or red wine his guests would like.
There's talk that the King Abdullah Financial District, a special zone in northern Riyadh, is considering allowing alcohol, according to three people who spoke on condition of anonymity. The financial district, Neom and the government's Center for International Communication did not respond to requests for comment.
Speculation over the booze ban could be a result of the government trying to gauge people's reactions before making any decisions. And, as ever, they're divided in what's still a deeply conservative society.
A group of six women leaving the sports bar last month, covered in black with only their eyes showing, screeched in shock at the idea of legalizing alcohol. No way, one of them said. Impossible, said another.
At a nearby cafe, 37-year-old Abdel-Aziz said he and his friends expect alcohol to be introduced within the next five years, and about a third of them support it. He hopes it will be confined to resorts such as "Neom," the prince's planned sci-fi metropolis that's supposed to become bigger than Dubai. "I'm OK with it if it's at Neom and at the other new cities," he said.
When talking about his plans in an interview with Bloomberg News in 2017, Prince Mohammed said Neom would be dry on the Saudi side. Foreigners who want alcohol can cross the border into Egypt or Jordan, he said.
Other countries in the Middle East also ban alcohol, including Iran, Sudan and Kuwait. In many of those that don't, there are significant restrictions even if they're sometimes overlooked. In Dubai, alcohol can be served only at a licensed establishment, and violations can be punishable by jail time. In Egypt, hotels can't serve Egyptians alcohol during the fasting month of Ramadan, which ended last week.
Some officials and Saudis close to the government say alcohol could never be permitted because the kingdom is the steward of Mecca and the birthplace of the faith. Muslims around the world face Mecca when they pray, so Saudi Arabia must remain a bastion of Islamic morality, they argue.
"I don't think it's appropriate for the government to introduce alcohol," said Nasma, 30, at a restaurant in Riyadh. "We are a Muslim country."