Alcohol and Dubai

Dubai's relationship with Alcohol is often seen as the same as its strict neighbours i.e. alcohol is not available and consuming alcohol is a criminal offence. Dubai was different. Alcohol was freely available until the late 1970s. What changed over the subsequent years is how Dubai managed Alcohol availability, together with its social and commercial aspects, yet still maintaining religious standards. Changes to Dubai's management of Alcohol began after 1979.

Alcohol was Dubai's Business in early 1970s

At beginning of 1970s, Dubai had no restrictions on Alcohol sales or its consumption. All types of alcohol and popular brands were freely on sale in Cafes, Restaurants, Hotels, Clubs and Liquor Stores. This ready availability came about because Alcohol was Dubai's major trading commodity. Alcohol was legally imported in commercial quantities by two main Trading Houses, Gray Mackenzie and Company and African and Eastern. Between them they held agencies for all the major international brands.

The Bigger Market

Although these Companies sold alcohol into the local market, their main market was Merchants trading with Gulf Countries. Merchants purchased Alcohol from these two Trading Houses at wholesale prices, then sold on at a substantial profit to markets outside Dubai where Alcohol was not legally available. This was legitimate business as far as Dubai was concerned. Importation and Exportation process followed Dubai's Laws. Delivery to the external market often did not follow the prevailing Laws of that market - in simple terms - alcohol was smuggled into these markets. Merchants trading in Alcohol were usually experienced Gold Traders. They knew how to get a product to market whatever the barriers. Known as Import/Export business in Dubai, the receiving end of the delivery chain called it smuggling. Dubai's attitude was everything they did was legal in Dubai. What happened in external markets was not Dubai's concern!

Smugglers had a taste for Alcohol

Incentives to trade alcohol were huge. A bottle of whiskey purchased in Dubai could sell for 30 times more into a neighbouring country back in the 70s. But these Traders did not deal in single bottles - they purchased thousands of cases at a time.......

He walked into my office unannounced and said "I want whiskey". I thought he wanted to buy a bottle or two -"How many do you want?" "5,000 cases" he answered."How are you going to pay?" I asked. His hands reached into each side of his Dishdasha and he began pulling out wads of Dirham notes still in their bank wrappers. He continued until his pockets were empty and my desk covered in wads of Dirham Notes. Now I understood what he wanted! The deal was done and 5,000 cases of Johnnie Walker Whiskey delivered. I have no idea where they went after that....

Manager with a Dubai Trading House

"A Glass of Wine with Your Lunch?"

Back in 1970s Dubai worked a six day week. Friday was the official day of rest and an opportunity for families to spend time together. That may be spent at the beach, or Club or visiting friends and possibly having a family lunch at one of Dubai's restaurants......

There were not many family orientated restaurants in 1970s Dubai. One that became a family favourite was Chalet Swisse on Al Maktoum Street. Our children were very young back then - Chalet Swisse had baby high chairs and served children's meals so it suited us. Kids could have their usual sausages and chips while Mum and Dad chose from an extensive menu of reasonable food. More importantly they could also choose from a substantial rack of French Wines that covered the far wall! Chalet Swisse was an ordinary "run of the mill" family restaurant, yet it had this magnificent range of fine French Wines on offer! No wonder it was our favourite restaurant!

Expatriate reminisces about life in 1970s Dubai

Using Diplomacy to solve an Alcohol Problem

1979 saw Shah of Iran deposed and replaced by Ayatollah Khomeini. His new regime applied strict Islamic Laws in respect of alcohol consumption. Shortly after, it was announced Iran's new Foreign Minister was to make his first visit to Dubai. This was quickly followed by a Government announcing the sale of Alcohol in Dubai was to stop immediately. This was interpreted as Sheikh Rashid making sure Dubai would not offend the Foreign Minister in any way. While this was obviously the main reason, there was also an unstated reason. Dubai Government had lost control of Alcohol distribution within Dubai. Alcohol had become freely available to an extent even roadside drink carts were offering Alcohol to go with any Pepsi sold. Alcohol was "walking out the backdoor" of legitimate businesses and into the black market. Iranian Foreign Minister's visit provided Dubai Government with the opportunity to regain control.

Alcohol Controls

Dubai Liquor Licence

After the Foreign Minister's departure, Dubai Government began implementing a system of Liquor Licences to closely control sale of Alcohol in commercial and private premises and to individuals. Hotels had to apply for a Liquor Licence before being permitted to sell Alcohol to their registered guests. Then followed a carefully controlled system for individual Liquor Permits based on Nationality, Religion and Salary that permitted certain sections of Dubai's resident population to purchase Alcohol from Dubai's two registered Alcohol Trading Companies. These Liquor Permits stipulated the maximum amount of Alcohol an individual could purchase each month. Finally private Clubs were required to apply for Liquor Licences then subjected to regular inspection and "surprise" inspections. Administration and control of the Liquor Licensing System was with Dubai Police. Any other businesses such as Cafes, Snack Bars etc were no longer permitted to sell Alcohol.

Liquor Permits became an accepted part of 1980s and 90s every day life until latterly when, inevitably, alternative sources of supply in nearby Emirates made buying Alcohol cheaper and more accessible but not without risk!