What A Fella Has To Do To Get A Drink Around The Muslim World

Jul 6, 2013
Originally published on July 6, 2013 5:00 pm

Reporting in the Middle East and Afghanistan can be challenging enough between dodging the bullets and bureaucracy. But, equally as confounding can be figuring out how and where to have a cold one after a hard day's work. The range of alcohol laws in Muslim countries can be simply dizzying.

Let's start with where I live these days: Afghanistan. Here, locals are banned from possessing and consuming alcohol, yet there are countless establishments in Kabul with licenses to sell drinks to foreigners. It's an awkward but pragmatic compromise struck after the fall of the Taliban, born of the simple reality that the thousands of expatriates working in Kabul generally like to drink.

In years past, there used to be shops that openly sold alcohol and for reasonable prices. But those establishments, and prices, are a thing of the past.

Non-Afghans are allowed two bottles, or liters, when they enter the country. Some are able to find ways to exceed the limit — though the giant pile of smashed bottles outside the Kabul airport's arrival terminal indicates plenty of failure.

Make No Assumptions

In Qatar, I found a completely different, albeit no less idiosyncratic, set of regulations. I was traveling from the U.S. back to Kabul, via Doha, Qatar's capital. In my suitcase, my two-bottle quota of alcohol.

It was a last-minute assignment, and I thought briefly about whether it would be a problem to bring in the alcohol, but I figured it would be like Dubai. There, alcohol is sold in hotel bars and restaurants (there are special liquor stores only for licensed expats with resident status), and it's legal to carry it in or buy it at the duty-free shops in the arrival halls.

But Qatar has its own twist. There, alcohol is confiscated upon arrival and returned upon departure — not ideal, but at least my bourbon would make it to Kabul.

Indeed, upon my arrival in Doha, customs officials politely relieved me of my stash and issued me a receipt.

Now that might lead you to believe that Qatar is dry. Far from it. Qataris are just trying to protect their profits. Also, like Dubai, Doha's hotels are full of bars and Westerners paying exorbitant prices for drinks: something like $12 for a Heineken and $16 for a shot of Jim Beam.

Well, most hotels are full of bars; I managed to find one of the only chain hotels that wasn't. Given that one of the only hotels with alcohol in Yemen — an extremely religious, and thus dry, country — is the Moevenpick, who would think one of the chain's two hotels in Doha would be dry?

And that's just the start of the idiosyncrasies and oddities of alcohol polices in Muslim countries.

Sudan is as dry as it gets. In 2007, my fixers took me to someone's house in a sketchy neighborhood, where we were able to buy what looked like IV bags of Ugandan pineapple schnapps.

Libya is also dry. During the revolution, it was easy to bring bottles in. But once strongman Moammar Gadhafi fell, the transitional government started enforcing alcohol bans at the airports and borders.

But where there's a will there's usually a way, and in Libya, Johnnie Walker Red — also consigned to a sketchy neighborhood (this time, in Tripoli) — could be had for $120 a pop.

Oases In A Conservative Region

Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia are all quite wet, and alcohol is available in restaurants, bars and shops. Turkey is also full of bars and liquor stores, though as my colleague Peter Kenyon has reported, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is tightening the rules.

While the Gulf countries are more conservative, Bahrain has some of the wildest bars in the region — often resembling rowdy spring break spots more than the Middle East. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are completely dry, and there's not a drop of legal alcohol outside diplomatic compounds.

When I went to reclaim my bottles at the Doha airport, the young men working behind the customs counter made a cursory check in the closet and said they weren't there.

Wrong answer.

After an hour of running to different desks and talking to different airport officials, a new crew of 20-something customs officers began their shift. They searched every duty-free bag in the closet — and finally found my bourbon.

I had just enough time to run to the gate — past a duty-free shop selling $6,000 bottles of scotch — and catch my plane.

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