Wednesday, 30 January 2019 17:27

Drinking wine when it’s illegal

Written by  Lee Suckling
“It’s a strange cultural experience when you can’t get a glass of wine with your meal.” “It’s a strange cultural experience when you can’t get a glass of wine with your meal.”

Lee Suckling travelled to the Middle East and learned the hard way that wine drinking isn’t impossible, but it’s not cheap or easy either. 

Nobody goes to the Middle East to drink wine. But few people go on holiday and will be happy being completely dry, either. 

Vacations to exotic places are about new experiences, beautiful historic sights, great food, and – if you’re an oenophile – to try foreign wines and have them improve your overall hospitality experience. 

When I organised a trip to some Gulf states – the UAE, Oman, and Qatar, I knew that alcohol was illegal and only available in “free zones” which have special licences. International hotels, nice restaurants, rooftop bars, that sort of thing. 

This differs from the more liberal Muslim countries like Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco, where public drinking is still prohibited but many take a “blind eye” approach to it and it’s readily available to non-Muslims at acceptable prices. 

Not so in Dubai – usually the first port of call for New Zealanders travelling to this part of the world. I was led to believe, through speaking with other travellers, that Dubai still had everything a Western wino could want if you went to the right places. 

Yet at international hotels and restaurants, you’re not going to get authentic, local dining experiences or food. Call me crazy, but I didn’t fly 14,200 kilometres to eat a Western-style rib-eye or a good pad Thai. I wanted to savour the spicy shish kebab meats, the authentic fresh falafel, the delicacy of stuffed camel and the textured, layered hummus of the region. 

Despite thinking I was prepared for it, it’s the strangest cultural experience when you can’t get a glass of wine with your meal. Dining is a much quicker affair and there’s little romance or sense of occasion about it. I never quite comprehended that wine to a meal was the difference between having a great culinary outing, and consuming food purely because you’re hungry and need the energy. Needless to say, most of my hospitality experiences left me wanting. 

What does one do when they can’t get a glass of Pinot to match their lamb shawarma? The answer, in the case of the Middle East, is they smoke. It’s the cultural norm to smoke either cigarettes or shisha (flavoured tobacco vapour from a waterpipe) in all eateries in the Middle East, indoors and out. While you will be asked if you want to sit in the smoking or non-smoking section (something we Kiwis can barely remember), the reality is, the smoke fumes are so pervasive you can’t dine without it around you. 

By day three or four of my two-week trip to the Middle East I’d had enough of a holiday “on the dry”. I decided it was time to eat and drink in some of these Westernised free zones. The restaurants and bars in all of the five-star hotels are well-stocked with decent wines and there was an unexpected skew towards New Zealand and Australian varietals. What was even more unexpected, however, is the price of them. 

In any of these nations, wine is approximately five times the cost you would pay in New Zealand – already an expensive country to drink in – and 10 times the price of wine in Europe. In both Dubai and Abu Dhabi I was shocked to find bottles of Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc for 1200 dirhams – the equivalent of NZD$500 – where I know it retails for around NZD$30 in Kiwi shops or $80 in restaurants. Even lower quality wines are expensive. Once, on a 43-degree afternoon by the hotel pool, I had such a hankering for Rosé I paid NZD$45 for a class of the cheapest available, which happened to be Jacobs Creek (a $10 bottle of wine back home). 

The currencies differ in every Middle Eastern country: UAE dirhams are 2.40 to one New Zealand Dollar, in Oman one NZD is 0.25 rials, and in Qatar one NZD is also in rials, but it’s 2.38 to the dollar. This makes for a lot of confusion when you’re looking at wine lists. Travellers often get caught out misreading how many zeros are at the end of the listed price. It’s easy to think you’ve found a reasonably-priced bottle in the UAE or Qatar for the equivalent of $35, when in actuality it’s $350. All of this is before the various tourists taxes that will be applied and can amount to 25 per cent.

Is there a way to get around all of this and actually drink reasonably-priced wine in this part of the world? If you’re a expat and non-Muslim you can apply for a personal alcohol license, but you need to be a resident. So the saving grace for general tourists like you and me is duty free at the airport upon arrival. Here you’ll find wine priced similarly to a New Zealand retailer and you can legally buy 2-4 litres per person, depending on the country you’re entering, and drink it in the privacy of your hotel room. Of all the research I did before my travels to the Middle East, this is the one tiny piece of information I wish I’d had before it was too late and I was on the other side of those gates. 

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