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Buying booze in the UAE

May 6, 2014
Road to Ras Al Khaimah

The road from Ras Al Khaimah

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.

On the journey from RAK

On the journey from RAK

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 and an A+E . 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).

wine from al hamra cellar

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

Georgian wine

Hooray – I found Georgian wine in the UAE

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).

The Chalet Hilton Al Hamra

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?

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58 Comments
  1. May 6, 2014 1:02 pm

    So impressed with your braveness Sally!

    • May 6, 2014 1:43 pm

      It’s a doddle really …. The first time I went on my own was the worst but once tried it’s not that bad at all.

  2. May 6, 2014 1:15 pm

    There are two holes in the wall in Ajman – one opposite the Kempinski and one in the port area. The latter has an attached wine shop but neither are that exciting for more than everyday items. I also hear rumors that some Spinney’s branches in Abu Dhabi do not request licenses. And, finally, don’t forget the on-line service (www.centaurusint.info). Those with long memories will remember the magnificent booze shop inside Sharjah port, owned by the Sheikh. My understanding is that the Emirate went dry after his nephew was killed in an alcohol-related car accident, though again that may be urban myth.

    • May 6, 2014 1:21 pm

      Your comments always add something extra to the post Dave. This is fascinating stuff – I’d not heard the rumour about Sharjah or knew that there was a booze shop there at one time! I would never order from the online service as it isn’t legal (also expensive).

    • May 6, 2014 1:41 pm

      Just adding info, Sally, just the info…

  3. sarahhedonista permalink
    May 6, 2014 1:25 pm

    So glad you got this post up. I’ve unpacked my treasure-chest of booze from the trip and looking forward to some xarel.lo and Ayala rose for my birthday party. I’d never get stuff like that in Dubai. But like many achievements, half the pleasure is in the journey. Love getting out of the city, especially with a friend.

    • May 6, 2014 1:41 pm

      Me too :) It is like unpacking treasure isn’t it. Enjoyed the journey and whole trip immensely.

  4. May 6, 2014 2:12 pm

    Interesting! I’d feel stressed if I bought booze in the UAE…

    Cheers,

    Rosa

    • May 6, 2014 5:40 pm

      Good thing I don’t Rosa :) Very relaxing walking round the liquor store…

  5. May 6, 2014 3:36 pm

    What a interesting post, Sally. It is a world away from London, with booze available in any quantity even from the small corner shops…I remember visiting a friend in Bahrain a few years ago and it was a similar situation with licences and allowances and treks across the city…it was a great visit though!

    • May 6, 2014 5:41 pm

      I’ve only been to the airport in Bahrain to my shame, but know many friends who have lived there. The proximity to Saudi means that there is a stream of traffic coming over for the bars and restaurants.

  6. May 6, 2014 4:10 pm

    Enjoyed that little round up. As Dave says there isn’t much to report about the one in Ajman. You don’t need a booze licence for any of the outlets in AD but you do have to pay cash. I heard that Sharjah was dry due to the fact it had financial problems in the 70’s and Saudi Arabia bailed them out and insisted they went dry. Sharjah is an interesting Emirate in many respects, did you know that the land Sharjah Wanderers is built on is owned by the Queen of England and hence is able to sell alcohol?

    • May 6, 2014 5:42 pm

      That’s what I’d heard about Sharjah too. But I never knew about the Wanderers – fascinating. So you can still drink legally in Sharjah if on their premises?!!

      • May 6, 2014 6:26 pm

        And you can buy at Sharjah Airport Duty Free flying in…

  7. May 6, 2014 5:05 pm

    Fascinating! Although probably I’d feel inclined to stick to what I was allowed to buy locally!

    • May 6, 2014 5:44 pm

      I do manage to nip down the road to the offy too Sarah. The 30% tax adds a hefty price tag though. Our visitors are always requested to bring their 5 bottle allowance through duty free (you can buy on arrivals).

  8. May 6, 2014 5:37 pm

    Great post, Sally! It’s fascinating to read about the getting of wine in a country where it’s so strictly controlled. I definitely take it for granted that here in the US, I can pretty much order whatever wine or spirt my heart desires and have it delivered to my doorstep! Cheers!!

    • May 6, 2014 5:48 pm

      I thought that would be across the US but have realised the inter-state border restrictions can cause a headache can’t they? And I was amazed to learn how many dry counties there are. So while there are some controls, we are much better off than some people in the US! Incredible really. Glad your choices are not limited where you are.

      • May 6, 2014 6:18 pm

        Some US states make it nearly impossible! We have it easy-peasy here in Virginia. But when we lived in North Carolina, I couldn’t buy wine before noon on Sundays. Other southern states restrict the entire Sunday!! And my poor friend in Utah . . . no wine for her! ;o) Crazy!!

  9. May 6, 2014 6:37 pm

    I was just telling Simon about your six bottles for Dhs. 600 deal, Sally, and we agreed that we should make the trek one weekend. Thanks for the complete details. Sounds like you and Sarah had a great time, and we could make a day of it also, with lunch included.

    • May 7, 2014 7:30 am

      I have so much red wine at home that I didn’t buy the latest selection but it included a nice Pinot Noir – perfect for this time of year. There are a few lunch options around Al Hamra – some places in the Mall next door, The Hilton and The Waldorf Astoria just up the road – had lunch at the latter once before and it was pretty good.

  10. May 6, 2014 6:43 pm

    I recall when I hadn’t reregistered my Beetle for a couple of years, watching the fines add up and realising the number of speeding tickets for the camera just short of Barracuda just before 8am on as Friday morning, when I figured it was the safest time to avoid the ‘fake accident’ scam…

    • May 7, 2014 7:31 am

      You and Geordie Armani should do a joint post about the yester year! Are you sure you can get alcohol at Sharjah airport? I flew in from Jaipur there and didn’t see any…

      • May 7, 2014 7:40 am

        Duty free is before immigration, but as I recall they don’t sign it very clearly.

  11. May 6, 2014 9:55 pm

    So interesting, so much has changed since I was there, booze warehouses didn’t exist then and Sharjah wasn’t dry!

    • May 7, 2014 7:33 am

      Sharjah was the hub of everything at one point I believe. Which years did you live there?

      • May 7, 2014 7:41 am

        Sharjah used to be the key centre. The port was the deepest harbor between Europe and the Far East and early flights from UK to Asia used Sharjah as the base. All changed when Dubai Creek was dredged, Jebel Ali Port was built and Dubai Airport opened…

      • May 7, 2014 9:25 am

        1984-1989 for me, my Dad stayed for 20 years and my Mum is now in Abu Dhabi so the links continues on…!!

  12. May 6, 2014 10:16 pm

    Gosh! Makes my negotiation of the aisles at Majestic or Waitrose seem a doddle. You really deserve a glass excellent wine after all that :)

    • May 6, 2014 10:25 pm

      I must admit to being like a child in a sweet shop in Majestic and Waitrose during the summer :)

  13. May 7, 2014 1:41 am

    So interesting! Oh, the similarities between where you are and here in the U.S. Bible Belt. I grew up in a dry county, but there were plenty of bootleggers and, of course, a little “town” consisting of nothing of liquor stores just across the border in the adjoining wet county.

    • May 7, 2014 7:12 am

      That’s so interesting. I lived in Saudi Arabia which was dry. There was a lot of home brewing, bootlegging etc. and Bahrain is still a destination for one kind of entertainment on the weekends!

  14. May 7, 2014 4:12 am

    Yikes, no clue how I do it. And I thought Alaska was tough enough to get alcohol if you don’t carry your passport as a non-citizen…

    • May 7, 2014 7:11 am

      I do have an off-license (liquor store) 5 minutes drive away – but yes – have to apply for a liquor every year (which entails submitting a signature from your employer, your passport, visa and your housing contract among other things).

  15. May 7, 2014 7:36 am

    This is so interesting and educational, Sally! Thanks for sharing the rules of the game in the UAE. A friend of mine has been seconded to Saudi and he hates it there: there’s zero access to booze even for non Muslims… On the other hand, if I were in the Emirates I’d sure use up my monthly allowance to buy a bottle of Le Difese and one of Chateau Tour de Pez at The Cellar… ;-)

    • May 7, 2014 7:43 am

      Saudi can be tough – I lived there for 5 years and that was long enough (not just because of that particular restriction). Where in Saudi does your friend live?
      The other reason for driving to the Northern Emirates is that there is no spend limit so no need to make difficult choices (if you have the budget of course).

      • May 7, 2014 8:08 am

        He used to be in Riyadh (which he hated the most) and now is in Jeddah which I understand is better in comparison – still no booze though…
        Five years must be a tough stretch: where were you, Sally? And how could you cope with the place being totally dry, if I may ask?
        I am all for no spending limits. In my view all these restrictive rules only fuel thriving black markets…

      • May 7, 2014 8:45 am

        I was in Jeddah, and having visited Riyadh several times, I know it was a nicer city to live in (but yes 5 years was enough…some good times but as a woman it was intolerable really). I had both my children while there so was not drinking much. If you were invited to the Embassies you could drink real stuff. Otherwise everyone home brewed on compounds…. (another incentive for not drinking!). There was the locally distilled illegal spirit ‘sidiki’ or ‘sid’ which I didn’t touch. You could buy the real stuff on the black market but it was very expensive and the stakes were very high for people who got involved in this and were caught. Let’s put this in context – they censored the word ‘wine’ with a big black marker pen on boxes of glasses sold in the shops. Ah the tales I could tell you….

      • May 12, 2014 12:52 am

        Thank you for following up, Sally: I’d love to hear those stories – who knows, perhaps some day while enjoying a good bottle of wine! I can only imagine how incredibly hard it must have been for you as a woman to live there and go through all that… Very courageous of you. By the way, Happy Mother’s Day! :-)

  16. GFwinecountryliving permalink
    May 7, 2014 8:02 am

    You are living a real adventure! Thanks for sharing your experiences!

  17. May 7, 2014 10:22 am

    I was under the impression Sharjah was so dry you could not drive through it with alcohol in your car. I would not mind the Reidel glasses as my reward for shopping :)

  18. May 7, 2014 10:24 am

    I read that I could bring in wine in my suitcase, not just from duty free. So I brought 5 bottles directly from France to my husband who is working in Dubai. My bags were not scanned on arrival and I had no problem. I did this twice. Was I misinformed? Was this a dangerous undertaking, after all?
    Also, how many minutes of the journey did you spend driving through Sharjah? I’d like to know how long I would have the feeling of adrenaline surging through my body on the return!

    • May 7, 2014 10:32 am

      How long do you drive through Sharjah? How long is a piece of string? Depending on your route and time of day, then 30 minutes is about right. However, there’s a need to balance the extra traffic and accident potential of driving through the centre of Sharjah with the speed but increased isolation of the Bypass Road.That’s why I used to do my runs first thing on a Friday, calculating that the police would not be over-exerting themselves at that time.

  19. May 7, 2014 11:00 am

    My wine buying trips are definitely not as exciting as yours Sally… but also sounds like a fun day out. :)

    • May 7, 2014 12:37 pm

      It was good fun Moya. Lovely to hear from you.

  20. May 7, 2014 1:43 pm

    Well, certainly very different from here in South Africa where I can just pop down the road to buy what I want without any license.
    Lovely learning more about different countries can’s and cant’s.
    Have a lovely day Sally. :-) Mandy xo

  21. May 8, 2014 10:43 am

    Having the freedom to pop down to the supermarket to pick up a bottle of tipple is definitely something I miss about living in UK. I have made the trip to Barracuda a few times now, but usually try and incorporate it into another trip (en route to Sandy B, camping trips etc…) to make the journey worth it! It’s the only one I have actually been too, but have heard from chums that the the one in Ajman is relatively easy to get to.

  22. cteachr permalink
    May 9, 2014 3:53 am

    I might have been afraid I couldn’t possibly decide which wine to buy when visiting the many great wineries in Australia. Does that count? Thanks for the informative post. I’ve always wanted to visit the Emirates. I have friends who work there.

  23. May 9, 2014 6:49 am

    Wm Fevre among the UAE…thanks for another engaging majic carpet ride through your exotic oasis in the blogosphere… cheers :-)

  24. May 9, 2014 6:50 am

    Wm Fevre among the UAE…thanks for another engaging magic carpet ride through your exotic oasis in the blogosphere… cheers :-)

  25. May 22, 2014 10:36 pm

    Thank you, Sally for this very informative useful cool post, loved reading this all! 😉

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