alcohol in dubai

Ejo #26 – The Most Frequently (And Some Less Frequently, But Still Interesting) Questions About Expat Life In Dubai*

Well, all I can say is thank goodness that it’s a leap year, giving me one extra day to scrape in this month’s ejo (just by the hair on my chinny chin chin!).  Phew!  So, people type some interesting things into Google.  Really interesting things!  Every time this site gets a referral from Google, I get a notification of what the search was that led them to me.  Some queries seem to come up again and again (you’d be surprised at how many people are in the market for an elephant skin jacket – I kid you not!).  My friend Chris (the one that helped me set up the site in the first place – yes, I should probably be paying him) suggested I write a special FAQ ejo to answer the more common questions.  And so, here it is.

 

CAN YOU HELP ME GET A JOB AS AN AIR TRAFFIC CONTROLLER IN DUBAI?

Far and away, this is the question that I get asked the most often.  Unfortunately for you the answer is no, I cannot.  What I can do though is provide you with an email address (Serco-Admin@dubaiairnav.gov.ae) where you can make enquiries and send your resume.  The rest is up to you.  Good luck.

 

WHAT DO MEN WEAR UNDER THEIR DISH DASH?

OK, so this is a very close second for most commonly asked question.  Being the intrepid investigator that I am, I summoned up the courage to ask one of my Emirati colleagues what he wears under his (keeping my fingers crossed that he wouldn’t get me deported for breaking some indecency law).  As it turns out I needn’t have worried.  He simply lifted his dish dash and showed me.  Yep!  All the way up.  Anyway, the garment worn under the dish dash is called a ‘wuzar’ (my spelling might not be 100% correct there, but that was the pronunciation).  It looks just like a long, cotton petticoat.  My colleague was wearing one with a loose elasticised waist but apparently you can also buy wrap-around wuzars, depending on your preference.  I asked another colleague (a woman this time, I’m not THAT bold) about the possibility of embarrassment caused by unwanted “physical reactions” and she told me (after laughing at me for a bit) that some men wear underpants, as well as a wuzar, to prevent any embarrassing situations cropping up (so to speak).  Others, more confident, simply go commando.  So there you have it, now you know.

 

IS ALCOHOL BANNED IN DUBAI?

As you’re about to find out, I have quite a lot to say on this topic.  Far from being banned, alcohol has a very large presence in Dubai.  The duty free allowance per person here is a very generous 4 litres of booze.  To put that in perspective, Australia’s limit is 2.25 litres.  I’ve mentioned in a previous ejo why I think alcohol is allowed in Dubai.  And it has everything to do with money!  Admittedly, not all the emirates are as laid back about it.  For instance Sharjah completely bans the consumption, or even possession, of alcohol.  If you live there, you can’t enjoy a beer with your food, even in the privacy of your own home.  Not legally anyway.  Another point to note is that alcohol is one of the only items in Dubai which is subject to tax.  A whopping 30% tax, making it very expensive.  Officially, in this emirate you need a license in order to purchase alcohol for your private consumption.  Unofficially, whenever you want to stock up, you can just drive to one of the (more relaxed) neighbouring emirates which sells untaxed booze.  Either way, it’s readily available.

 

I must confess that when we first moved here my drinking became problematic.  Free flowing booze at weekly brunches makes it difficult to know how much you’re actually drinking.  And socially, it’s something that can easily become a habit.  I put on a lot of weight, behaved very badly and suffered some monster hangovers (the worst of my life).  Eventually, I sobered up for long enough to realise that it had to stop.  Not everyone has the same discipline.  The two Brits who were arrested and deported for the ‘sex on the beach’ scandal had apparently been drinking all afternoon at one of the famous Friday brunches.  And there lies the dichotomy.  The Friday brunch is a Dubai institution.  It is government sanctioned and almost impossible to avoid if you want to go out for a midday meal on Friday (which happens to be the first day of the weekend here).  Just about every hotel in town offers a Friday Brunch.  But to actually be under the influence of alcohol in public (whether you are rip roaring drunk or have had just one glass) is illegal.  So, theoretically, the cops could arrest every single person leaving a brunch as soon as they step out of the hotel, though they tend not to as it wouldn’t be very good publicity for the city.  But what amazes me is the number of people who are completely unaware of the law that they are breaking, who are then outraged when they get into trouble for breaking it.  Yes, booze is a big part of life in Dubai, but it exists in a very delicate balance within society.  It’s not something that you can take for granted, like back home (or pretty well anywhere else in the world).  You must be careful at all times, as the consequences can be severe.  A woman found this out a few years ago when, after attending a big brunch, she drunkenly passed out in a hotel bathroom where a hotel staff member raped her.  When she reported the rape, they didn’t just arrest him for the rape, but also her, on charges of being drunk in public.  That’s very scary.

 

WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES AND LESSONS FOR A WESTERN WOMAN WORKING IN THE UAE?

David and I moved to Dubai in 2008 after he was offered an ATC job at Dubai International Airport.  When I couldn’t immediately get work as an air traffic controller, people often assumed it was because I was a woman and that women aren’t allowed to work here.  This isn’t true, and my lack of employment was actually the result of the global financial crisis.  A year or so into our move I was offered an ATC job at Al Maktoum International Airport where I’ve been happily working for over two years.  I’m lucky enough to work for a very large multi-national company which implements equal employment rights for women here, and as a result I’ve never experienced any discrimination in the workplace.  In fact I’ve been given opportunities here that wouldn’t so readily be available to me back home.  Not because (or in spite of the fact that) I’m a woman, but based on my ability to do the job.  To be completely honest I’m sure that there are many women here who do face discrimination and challenges in the workplace but I have neither observed or, personally, been subjected to it.

 

Having said all that, something very disturbing happened to me a couple of days ago which demonstrates that the city has a VERY long way to go towards gender equality.  As I mentioned earlier, a liquor license is required to (legally) buy alcohol here, so I figured I’d apply for one since David’s expired a while ago.  So, off I went to the bottle shop with all the necessary paperwork in hand.  This includes an application form, a copy of my passport and residency visa, a copy of my payslip and a “Letter of No Objection” from my employer (stating that they had no objection to me applying for the license).  I confidently handed it all over and was promptly asked where the “Letter of No Objection” from my husband was.  I’m just going to let that sink in for a minute while I go on to describe how I had to bend down to pick up my jaw off the floor.  Yep, they insisted that, since I’d checked the box on the application form saying I was married, I had to ask my husband’s permission to obtain a license to drink booze.  It’s actually enough to DRIVE you to drink!  I asked, incredulously, if that would still be the case if my husband was my dependant, and I was his sponsor.  The answer came back yes.  The man, it seems, is still the boss.  Being the modern woman that I am, I insisted that they process my application without David’s authority so we’ll wait and see how that works out for me.  I’ll let you know.  While this experience completely flabbergasted me, it is an isolated one (for me at least).  I look forward to never encountering such discrimination here again.

 

ON A ONE-TO-ONE BASIS WHAT IS THE COMFORT LEVEL BETWEEN ARABS AND NON-ARABS BOTH IN DUBAI AND IN THE RURAL AREAS?  IS THERE COMFORT?  CONFIDING, FRIENDSHIP, ALLIES?  OR ARE WESTERNERS FOREVER A COMMODITY IN A TRANSIENT INTERNATIONAL TRADE?

My experience in Dubai is that, as a general rule, locals are a little wary of expats.  As a whole they probably do see us as a bit of a commodity.  But that isn’t to say that they necessarily resent our presence here.  The city simply wouldn’t be what it is today without us.  Regardless of the overall feeling, my own personal experience is that once an Emirati develops a relationship with a foreigner (whether it be a friendship or a working relationship) then the guard comes down.  Every Emirati that I have the pleasure of knowing through work is warm, generous, hospitable and friendly.  I think that this is their true nature and that the wariness comes as a natural (and understandable) result of being a minority in their own country.  I haven’t met any locals out of the city but from what I hear, Bedouin hospitality is even greater.  So, one-to-one I’d say that yes, relations are good.  There is warmth and acceptance and friendship.  However, I don’t think it would be realistic to expect this to extend to all relations between expats and locals.  I have heard stories of locals being rude, nasty and sometimes just plain malicious towards expats.  I suppose that, just like everywhere else, it depends on the people involved.

 

HOW DO THEY EXPECT “THE WORLD” TO NOT ERODE AWAY ON A BIG TIDE/STORM SURGE?

This is an interesting question.  For those of you who don’t know, The World project is a man-made archipelago consisting of about 250 islands designed to look, from above, like a map of the world.  There seem to be regular reports that the islands are slipping back into (and being re-reclaimed by) the sea.  Nakheel, the developer of these (and the more successful Palm Island projects) of course denies these reports.  So, who’s right?  Well, for now it appears that the islands are sticking around, though due to the financial crisis, until recently only one had been developed – and that one belongs to the ruler of Dubai.  Earlier this month though, I heard that an Indian entrepreneur has developed a beach club (complete with swimming pool, beachside cabanas, bar and restaurant) on the island of Lebanon which is due to open any day.  This means that people will be able to visit the islands for the first time ever (which is quite exciting).  Hopefully this will encourage other developers to invest in similar kinds of ventures.  As for the threat of erosion, from what I can tell, the islands lie on a very solid foundation (similar to that of the Palm Islands and also the reclaimed land on which the Burj Al Arab sits).  The technology is sound.  The 321 million cubic metres of sand and 31 million tons of rock which form the foundation would also suggest that The World is here to stay.  (To put those figures into perspective, 1.8 million tons of debris was recovered from Ground Zero after 9/11.)

 

Lebanon Island

 

HAS LEEWIN FOUND A WIFE?

Not yet.  And, in a lucky twist of fate, the search has temporarily been called off after his cousin (a numerologist) did a reading and discovered that Leewin’s profile on a whole bunch of matrimonial sites had been registered on an unlucky date.  How about that!  His brother quickly took down all of Leewin’s information from the internet, and is waiting a couple of months (and for a new numerology reading) before re-registering him.  Marriage: 0, Leewin: 1.

 

OK, so I hope that your question has been answered.  This is actually part one in a two part special so standby for some more interesting facts about life in Dubai next month.  In the meantime if you have a burning desire to have a myth debunked or just want some information on something you’re unsure about, please just drop me a note and I’ll see if I can add it to the next FAQ ejo.

 

 

* (Unfortunately,) I feel obliged to state that the answers to these questions are 100% opinion only.  If I’m wrong about something, I apologise and am very open to being corrected.

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!!??