Buying booze in the UAE
There’s a slight sense of trepidation as we fill the tank with petrol and set off on this road trip. Anxious in case I take the wrong turning and get swept off on the wrong highway and end up in a maze of industrial zones; apprehensive of the fabled gridlock that can creep up like lightning and rob your day of hours; nervous of the rumoured targeting of female drivers by opportunists who will bump my car and threaten to call the police in the dry Emirate of Sharjah and demand hush money (although I think this is an urban myth). I grip the steering wheel, put my pedal to the metal and head off, with the reassuring company of The Hedonista, to the Northern Emirates on a mission to buy tax-free booze.
People who have never visited the United Arab Emirates seem to have conflicting perceptions about the country and this is polarised by their views on alcohol. “You get plastered at all-you-can-drink brunches and get jailed for having sex on the beach, don’t you?” or “Isn’t alcohol banned in the UAE as a Muslim country?”. Both views have a grain of truth but it’s far from the whole picture. Alcohol is available to non-Muslims but strictly controlled – however the rules are more tolerant than in some U.S. states. The Emirate of Sharjah is completely dry (and it has stricter laws in terms of dress and modesty).
I live in Dubai and require an alcohol license to go and shop at an off-license. This is reasonably simple to obtain as the two main retailers of booze (MMI and A&E) help you with the process and add incentives for doing so. A maximum pre-tax monthly spending allowance is given calculated on salary and qualifications I believe. We’ve been in the Emirates since 2000 and our limit has never increased so it’s fine for moderate drinking of moderate wines but could blow the whole budget on one bottle of fine wine and it would be useless if throwing a party. 30% tax is added at the till too.
For these reasons, many people drive to the Northern Emirates to visit one of several tax-free warehouses. They don’t demand to see an alcohol license (although it’s important to have one as it’s needed for legal drinking, as well as buying, booze) and there are no limits on how much you can spend. There are conflicting messages about whether its legal to transport your purchases, especially as the road leads through the dry state of Sharjah. A spokesperson for one of the retailers assured me categorically that it’s fine if it’s for personal consumption. Another retailer said the law isn’t clear.
It may seem a little mad (or desperate) to embark on a three-hour round trip, but in Britain people used to take the ferry to France to stock up on cheaper wines and beer.
I’d actually broken the fear factor on an earlier trip and driven off to Ras Al Khaimah on my own. The roads have improved dramatically and now the dreaded ‘National Paints’ road improvements are finished, the journey is straight forward, but considerably more enjoyable with Sarah to chat to. Otherwise I recommend you select some playlists or some good podcasts via the car speaker all the way as it’s quite a boring journey, although I like the colours of the sand and spotting a few camels on the way. Read more here about podcasts, if you want to learn about wine while on your way to buy it.
Most people from Dubai travel to Ras Al Khaimah for their booze-run (MMI and A+E) or Umm Al Qwain (Barracuda), plus there’s a place called The Hole in the Wall in Ajman. My preferred choice is The Cellar, Al Hamra especially when driving alone; here’s what to expect from the couple I’ve visited:
The Cellar – Al Hamra
The Cellar – Al Hamra – Newly extended, run by MMI, this is really easy to get to; you take the E311 road through Sharjah and go straight until the road ends at a roundabout where you take a left. After a few minutes drive you’ll see it on the right hand side, immediately before the Al Hamra Mall.
Things to go for:
The Le Clos section of fine wine. If, like me, you don’t travel through the airport very often, this is an oenophiles delight. The wines are stored well at optimum temperatures (bad storage is a criticism I’ve heard levelled at some of the other retailers). There’s a monthly selection of six wines for 600 AED (163 USD) – see picture below for one I bought earlier. They have some seriously high-end vintages and a fine wine specialist John Christenson who will advise you (ring ahead to check when he is there).
The new layout is easy to navigate and the revamp shows off the range of wines particularly and there is a special area to guide wine drinkers through various wine styles.
Whisky. From Glen Grant 60 year old special edition, to Kilchoman earlier releases, to Welsh whisky, via Japan and everything in between.
Costa – within the store so you can get a caffeine fix before the journey home.
Wilson. Manager Wilson is super helpful, knowledgeable (he’s traveled to Australia and helped at a wine harvest) and a bit of a legend.
Offers – regular discounts and tax-free, but sign up for the newsletter for the regular weekend promotions when, if you spend over a certain amount, you can walk away with an incentive (drinks fridge, barbecues, Reidel glasses, cases of Champagne and ipads are some of the goodies that have been given away).
Getting there and away. The outward journey as above and on your return, leave the store and go past the Al Hamra Mall up to the roundabout where you take a left. Follow signs to Dubai until you are back on the E311 but exit at the sign to Emirates Road (103?) to avoid Sharjah. When I drove alone I felt less vulnerable leaving MMI as it’s among other buildings and businesses (less exposed than Barracuda) – handy if you believe those urban myths.
Barracuda – The one that everyone has heard of out in Umm Al Qwain and it feels a bit like visiting the Wild West as you drive along the approach road with a battered old plane to your left, the distant cement factory on your right. To get there you come from Sharjah as above and exit the E311 at the sign to Dreamland and take a left at the small roundabout. Follow the track through the desert (waving at the camels) until you reach the end and take a right onto a dual carriageway. Take a U-turn at the Aqua Park, then a right straight after it down a single track lane (towards the sea).
Things to go for:
The range – this place is cavernous and a bit mind-boggling. If you are a collector of curios this is for you – go through to the back shelves for wines from Cyprus and Georgia to name a few. You’ll find wines here that the two major retailers don’t offer (and vice versa). There’s a big range of liqueur chocolates at the till too.
Biodynamic and organic – the shop within a shop, called Rootstock, specialises in some small producers of niche wines, including those made with minimal intervention, at mid-range prices. Sadly no qvevri wines from Georgia….yet?
A quick refuel – There’s a cafe upstairs for your caffeine fix.
Gourmet gifts. Finer Things is a little deli next door and well worth popping into for its range of oils, vinegars, jams, biscuits and excellent artisan French cheeses.
Getting there and away. The outward journey as above (click the Rootstock link for more detail) and you go back the way you came. If you continue straight on after the water park towards Ras Al Khaimah you will reach MMI Al Hamra in less than 10 minutes (and places like the new Waldorf and the Al Hamra Golf Club).
I haven’t visited the A+E branch (near MMI) or the Ajman outlet hence no report.
The Hedonista and I popped into The Hilton Al Hamra Hotel and Golf resort for a quick lunch before we left. The club sandwich at Le Chalet was fairly average but the view was superb. Relaxed and happy, all worries and anxiety banished, tucking our purchases snugly under a blanket, we set back on the road to Dubai. We breezed home on the Emirates Road (the journey took about 90 minutes), any fears forgotten and looking forward to tasting some of our interesting finds.
This is my entry for the Monthly Wine Writing Challenge #9. The theme for this month is: Fear!
Disclosure: I was allowed to take pictures inside The Cellar as I was invited on a media trip so they were taken on my camera. I worked on a freelance project with MMI a couple of years ago, so I am more familiar with their range and am friends with several employees. I studied for my WSET 3 exam with members of the team from Barracuda and know some of the Rootstock team. This is a personal account of my visits to the Northern Emirates (not the press trip) and my opinions are my own.
Have you ever had wine-buying experiences that have induced fear or trepidation?