Ejo #5 – Alcohol Restrictions (and Loopholes) in Dubai

Quite a few people have asked how David and I are coping in an Islamic country without alcohol.  Fear not dear friends for there is a plentiful supply to be had, you just have to be in the know about how and where to get it.  Of course there are restaurants, hotels and bars that serve outrageously marked up drinks at all hours of the day and night.  Usually the mark up is in the order of x6 and that includes tax.  Alcohol in fact is about the only thing in the UAE to be subject to tax (that’s such a dirty word to me now – not that it wasn’t before).  30% tax.  Blech!!!!  But if you want to buy alcohol to drink at home there are only two “official” suppliers in Dubai – MMI (Maritime & Mercantile International) and A&E (African & Eastern).  They sound like fun, right??!!

Actually we are very lucky in Dubai.  Some of the emirates, like Sharjah, are dry emirates where drinking or even posession of alcohol is illegal.  The rulers of Dubai probably realised that in order to attract people here (at least the big drinking Brits and Aussies) they had to be a little more lax, and thus alcohol IS sold in Dubai.  But (of course there’s a but), in order to buy it you need to get a liquor permit.  In order to be eligible for a liquor permit you have to earn a certain amount per month and go through quite a lot of red tape to apply.  You need to provide them with a letter from your employer stating your monthly salary and that you are contracted to work for a certain period of time, AND that they have no objection to you buying alcohol.  Then you have to give them copies of your passport and copies of your residency visa.  Good lord!!  And then on top of that you are only allowed to buy a certain amount of alcohol per month.  They impose a booze quota!!  This amount is dependent on how much you earn (as obviously the more money you make, the more you deserve to drink it away)!!.  And the cherry on top is that 30% tax they lug you with.

Let’s just say that the whole process is so drawn out and convoluted that we are yet to complete it.  We have actually submitted the application but because of Xmas, Eid, New Year, Chinese New Year etc, it might be another four weeks before we have our permit.  So where are we getting our booze????  I’m glad you asked.  We get it from a place called Barracuda.  Ooooh, that sounds ferocious!!  But it isn’t.  Barracuda is a little seaside resort two emirates away in Umm Al Quwain (about 55 minutes drive from our place).  It is also home to what is known as a “hole in the wall”, a hidden and quite illegal trove of liquid treasures (don’t tell anyone I told you).  A funny little fact about Barracuda is that it even exists at all in an Islamic emirate where alcohol is considered haram (bad, evil).  This question was answered recently when someone told me that the Sheikh of Umm Al Quwain actually owns it.  SHOCK AND HORROR!!!!  A Muslim making money from alcohol goes against the Quran’s teachings, but I’m not going to be complaining to anyone.  More of it, I say!!  And anyway, as far as I’m concerned that could just be a rumour.  But it’s a juicy one.

We’d been told about Barracuda and were quite keen to go as our duty-free stash was running out fast.  But David had also heard stories about “bandits” laying in wait for all the expats driving out of Barracuda and then involving them in minor car accidents.  Then, while the police are being called (because in the UAE if you have even the most minor bingle, the cops are required to attend in order to apportion blame) they would proceed to blackmail you: Give us money or we’ll tell the cops about your illegal stash.  These horror stories put us off for a little while but when our reserves were getting dangerously low we built up the courage and made a plan to head out!!

The day of the Booze Run dawned bright and clear.  What am I talking about?  I have no idea how the day of the Booze Run dawned.  I was asleep.  But at 9.30am when I did get up, it was bright and clear.  By the time we’d set out an hour later though, a big sand storm was blowing in from across the Gulf (damn Iran and all it’s infernal sand!!).  But we resolved to continue (after all, we’d had our last G&T the night before – we were out of options).  Unfortunately, the further we got out of Dubai, the worse it got.  Visibility was reduced, the car was being buffeted by strong winds and tumbleweeds were drifting across the freeway – with the attendant manic swerving of all the cars trying to avoid them (yes, avoid the tumbleweed, smash into the Yaris – sound decision).  It was almost as if Allah was trying to tell us something, trying to warn us to give it up. 

But we courageously persisted and as we drove past Sharjah and into Ras Al Khaimah, the storm abated and the blue skies once again shone upon us.  The aftermath of the sandstorm though was pretty spectacular to behold.  The roads where covered in drifting sand.  We were pretty well out in the desert by now so it was like the dunes were reclaiming the roads.  We took the exit to Barracuda and eventually made our way to the resort.  Now, when something is described to me as a “hole in the wall” I tend to process the image rather literally and so I imagined that it would be a little hut, hidden behind some palm fronds where you’d have to do a secret knock on the door to gain access to a dusty little shop full of crates of old bottles of Mateusz and kegs of home made moonshine.  Oh glory days, how wrong I was!!!!


The first clue that made me realise that this place was a serious operation was the full car park – spaces for more than a hundred cars.  The second sign was the supermarket sized shopping trolleys.  And the final sign was seeing it all with my own eyes.  This place is booze heaven.  For those of you from Australia, think Dan Murphy’s but with a bigger selection of vodka.  There is Australian beer cheaper than in Australia, and beer and wines from all over the world.  They had everything.  French champagne, even Grange Hermitage (under lock and key).  To say that David and I were like kids in a candy store would be incorrect.  We were like alcoholics in a liquor wonderland.  My eyes were popping out of my head – it was just the complete opposite of what I’d imagined.  It was magnificent.


And so we filled up a trolley, and with our car laden with clinking bottles, we took off for home.  Now, neither of us said anything but I know that I, for one, was a bit nervous about these so-called ‘bandits’ that were supposed to ambush us in a fender-bender.  Every car that approached us was full of malicious intent.  Every car that we overtook was skulkily suspicous.  I was so nervous that I (yes, I was driving!!) missed a turn at a roundabout and only realised it ten minutes later when we passed a rather large statue that we had definitely not seen on the way in.  We were lost!!!!  With 30 litres of illegal alcohol in the boot.  Oh well, I thought, it’s the beginning of yet another Arabian adventure. 


We followed some signs pointing to Dubai that disappeared once we entered an industrial zone, to be replaced by signs proclaiming that we were in fact in Sharjah!!  And we got stuck in bumper to bumper traffic for over an hour.  Every time we moved an inch forward, and someone changed lanes behind or in front of us, I was horrified that the car would get clipped and the police would have to be called.  Because to get caught with illegal alcohol in Umm Al Quwain is one thing.  To get caught with it in a place where alcohol itself is illegal is entirely another thing.  An undesirable thing.  But somehow we managed to avoid an international scandal the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the ‘sex on the beach’ incident and managed to return home during an agonisingly slow 2.5 hour drive.  And thus ended our first Booze Run. 


But a few days before the end of 2008 David put a bottle of white wine in the fridge and said the ugly words, ‘That’s the last one”.  Plus New Year’s Eve was approaching.  Say no more!!  And so another journey was undertaken.  This time it went without a hitch.  We’re old pros by now!!  We bought some champagne (amongst several other things!!) as we had a grand plan all laid out for New Year’s Eve.  I was going to pick David up from work at 9pm and we’d go home to where I’d prepared a special dinner.  We’d kick back and relax, drink some French champagne (thank you Barracuda) and watch the amazing fireworks display from our 32nd floor balcony.  Perfect!!


Alas alack, does anything ever go according to plan??  Would it be as much fun if it did??  Two forces conspired to foil our perfect evening.  The first force was our beloved Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum.  At noon on the 31st December, he decreed that all NYE celebrations were off.  Cancelled.  No bands, no concerts, no public parties, no public countdown and no fireworks.  It was an act of support for the Palestinians who are under attack from Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip.  A noble act.


But as powerful as the Sheikh is, the second force to toy with us was more powerful still – and even if the fireworks had gone ahead we would not have been able to see them anyway, for the entire city was blanketed in a thick, and rather spooky layer of fog.  Let’s just say that from our balcony we couldn’t see a single other building, or even a light (below is a photo of the night in question, and another taken on a regular evening).  And so, the evening was spent eating delicious food (if I do say so myself), drinking delectable bubbles and gazing onto a soupy whiteout.  And we still managed to have fun!!


Normal View from Living Room

NYE 2008

PS The Sheikh of Umm Al Quwain died in early January (RIP), so I wonder what will happen to Barracuda.  Perhaps we should do another run sometime soon!!??


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