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Friday, December 17, 2004

Booze

Eeeh, I don't know. I'm taking a complete day off (well, it is Friday, the official day of rest in this 'ere parish), and what do I do? Bloody blog all day! How sad is that?

Anyhoo, writing one of my earlier posts I mentioned an A & E booze shop that I found this morning (and it's much closer than the one I usually use), and realised that booze shops and alcohol in general are something that my global readership need to know about.

Here's the deal, the UAE is an officially Islamic country, and that means that access to alcohol is fairly tightly controlled. Muslims are not supposed to drink alcohol. In the UAE the policy on the supply of alcohol is decided by the individual emirates. Sharjah is dry (I think this happened about 20 years ago - although there were some holes-in-wall at Sharjah Port until about five years ago). The other emirates are fairly wet. In Dubai and Abu Dhabi you have to buy an annual licence to be able to buy the stuff in certain shops. You can only get this licence if you have a residence permit and are not a muslim.

The prices of beer and wine in MMI (Maritime & Mercantile International) and A & E (African & Eastern) are fairly high, but spirits are much cheaper than in the UK because there isn't the excessive customs duty. However, in Dubai, there is a 30% tax to be added to all purchases. Ouch.

Folk with a bit of time on their hands can take a drive up to the Northern Emirates (Ajman, Umm Al Quwain, Ras Al Khaimah and Fujairah) where you will find several excellent booze shops. In these emirates there is no requirement for a licence, no tax, the basic prices are lower and in some cases the range is better. These outlets all used to be 'holes in the wall' - literally, there were no signs, you went up to a hatch in a wall, told them what you wanted and paid for it. Over the last few years, most of them have opened proper shops where you pick what you want from the shelves.

There's two downsides to using the holes in the wall.
1) They're a long way away - from where we live now, it's an hour and a quarter to the nearest one.
2) It is technically illegal to transport alcohol through the emirate of Sharjah, and you cannot get to any of the Northern Emirates from Dubai or Abu Dhabi without going through Sharjah, unless you fly or take your boat. I have never ever heard of anyone having a problem with this, but I guess if you had an accident while doing it, or they just didn't like your face, you could be in trouble. I think they would only take action if you were carrying more than was reasonable for your own personal use, but otherwise a blind eye seems to be turned.

All the above applies only to expat residents in the emirates. For visitors on holiday or business, the situation is slightly different. Alcohol is available in restaurants at most hotels. In theory you may only use facilities in the hotel that you are staying in. In practice you can drink anywhere you like, and as long as you don't cause trouble you will not have a problem.

Residence-visa holders drinking in these bars are supposed to have a booze licence (and carry it with them) but I've never heard of this being enforced in any way. In actual fact there is a very large proportion of the eligible population who have never bothered to get a licence. Some eligible people cannot get a licence because their employer will not give a no-objection letter (I had an employer of that ilk when I first arrived here).

And finally, the question of bars themselves. These are supposed to be located within hotels for the benefit of hotel patrons only. Private members clubs can also be licensed. But what you will never find is a bar or licensed restaurant that you can walk into off the street. There have been examples in the past of some fairly loosely-defined private clubs and hotels. There was one very successful venue that allegedly had 4 lettable rooms and therefore qualified as an hotel, but I never heard of anyone staying there.

I suspect that Dubai would dearly love to allow standalone restaurants and bars to be licensed. We now have a very interesting development at Madinat Jumeirah. This is a beautiful mini-town next to the Burj Al Arab. There are two hotels, a conference centre and a soukh on the site. There are fake canals running through the property with traditional abras (water-taxis) whizzing about. The soukh contains a whole bunch of bars and licensed restaurants, and you can get into them without going anywhere near either of the hotels, but it's all owned by Jumeirah International so I guess that's OK.

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