Saudi police say the bombings started with bootlegging and the sale of a bar

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Police investigating bomb attacks on Westerners in Saudi Arabia last year were convinced from the start there were links to the illegal supply of alcohol to expatriates.

Police investigating bomb attacks on Westerners in Saudi Arabia last year were convinced from the start there were links to the illegal supply of alcohol to expatriates.

They believe the bombing campaign initially arose after a disagreement between two Britons over the sale of an illegal bar, the Celtic Corner, in one of Saudi's compounds for Western workers.

The new owner of the bar, Christopher Rodway, 47, was killed in a bomb attack last November. In February the seller, Sandy Mitchell, 44, gave what appeared to be a scripted confession on Saudi television.

The police claim that a second round of bombings between December and March, after Mr Mitchell's arrest, was an attempt to clear his name.

These are the attacks that appear to have been admitted by James Cottle, James Lee ad Leslie Walker in their televised confessions yesterday. A further eight men have been arrested in connection with the supply of alcohol. Six have been sentenced to public flogging and up to two years in jail, and one has been extradited. If convicted, the sentence for those charged with the bombings is likely to be execution by beheading.

British expatriates have long been known to control the lucrative smuggling of alcohol to the Middle East and the production of strong spirits, particularly in Saudi. Although alcohol is banned in many of the region's Islamic countries, the authorities tend to turn a blind eye to Westerners' activities as long as they do not involve local people or publicity.

The attitude of the Saudi authorities became less tolerant after the conviction of the British nurses Deborah Parry and Lucille McLauchlan, for the murder of their Australian colleague, Yvonne Gilford, in 1996. Publicity over the court case threw an unwelcome light on the culture of illegal drinking parties and sexual shenanigans among expats.

In response, the authorities closed down many of the pubs and clubs that were illegally selling alcohol. But this made the supply of alcohol a much more lucrative trade.

Alcohol remains freely available in Saudi, often entering the country through the long desert border with Yemen. The rewards for those who do breach Islamic law by smuggling alcohol can be great. A £19 bottle of Johnnie Walker scotch can be sold for £120 and, if traded in bulk, a shipment of 1,100 cases can make a £1.3m profit.

Raw alcohol, known as Sid, can be produced on stills smuggled into the country in expats' luggage; a litre sells for up to £25 in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, and deals can earn £2,000 a week. In recent years the supply has become better organised. Rumours are that professional criminals from Europe and the Far East are controlling much of the trade, but the expats have stayed in control of the operations on the ground.

Last year's bomb attacks led to concern that Westerners were the target of Islamic fundamentalists. Saudi opposition groups are appalled at the lifestyle of Britons. Many small opposition groups take their inspiration from Osama bin Laden, who is accused of planning the two 1998 bombings of US embassies in Africa.

One expatriate said: "Almost everybody from Britain drinks over here. We know it's illegal but life is so boring in Saudi. Everyone knows they might get caught, but we're all prepared to take the risk."

More than 30,000 Britons work in Saudi, most living in luxury compounds protected by high gates and security guards. For many life is a heady mix of oppression and illicit excitement. Saudi has some of the harshest codes in the world governing social behaviour. These rules are enforced by the religious police, the Committee for Encouraging Virtue and Preventing Vice, and the Mutawwah. While outside the compounds single men and women are forbidden to mix at the workplace or take taxis together, inside, the atmosphere is almost hedonistic, with well-paid Westerners making the most of their time off.

The Saudi authorities, meanwhile, are said to be planning a crackdown on the use of alcohol by expats.