Whether “Oktoberfest”, “Heurigen”, dinner parties, Christmas parties or the almost obligatory Friday brunch – especially autumn and winter offers numerous opportunities for expats to drink a glass (or more) in the UAE.
But what about possible (legal) consequences if alcohol is consumed either too much or in the wrong places? Old-established expats would answer that nothing happens anyway and that everything is handled quite loosely here. – On the other hand, less familiar people in the UAE believe that you are already one step in prison when you drink alcohol. If you follow the horror stories that regularly appear in the international media about alcohol consumption in the UAE (following the pattern of “Tourist in Dubai imprisoned for weeks after drinking a beer”), you shouldn’t even smell a beer.
But as so often, the truth lies somewhere in between:
Acquisition and consumption of alcohol
In principle, the consumption of alcohol is strictly prohibited in the UAE due to Sharia law, which affects a large part of the criminal laws. However, in the UAE, the influence of the numerous expats has become noticeable insofar as there are exceptions for non-Muslims, and in the case of tourists/expats, the authorities often do not look too closely. The extent to which these exceptions apply depends in principle on the law of the respective emirate. Only very few provisions in the federal laws regulate possible consequences of alcohol consumption uniformly for all emirates (e.g. the regulation on minimum penalties for drunken car journeys).
With regard to the respective internal regulations, the seven Emirates differ, in part, very clearly: In addition to Sharjah, which has an absolute alcohol ban with few exceptions, an alcohol license is required in Abu Dhabi and Dubai for acquisition and consumption. However, the purchase and consumption of alcohol in Ras Al Khaimah, Ajman, Umm Al Quwain and Fujairah is rather unproblematic – provided, of course, that you are not a Muslim and over the age of 21.
All emirates (except Sharjah) have in common that alcohol can only be purchased in special places (liquor stores, licensed hotels/restaurants/bars and duty-free shops at the airport) and can only be consumed in special places (licensed hotels/restaurants/bars, private apartments, etc).
In Abu Dhabi and Dubai, a liquor license is also required; strictly speaking, not only for the purchase of alcohol in liquor stores, but also for the consumption of alcohol in these Emirates. Many readers of these lines will now justifiably object that they have often consumed alcohol in Abu Dhabi or Dubai without having been checked. This is true, as guests of hotels/restaurants you are very rarely asked for such a license, especially as such a license can only be applied by UAE residents and therefore the rule cannot apply to tourists. Nevertheless, an Alcohol-License is legally required for the mere consumption in restaurants in Abu Dhabi/Dubai. Application forms are available in the well-known liquor stores, which also take care of the formalities. In this context, it should be noted that residents of Abu Dhabi and Dubai who store alcohol at home should definitely acquire such a license, even if they do not drink the alcohol themselves, but only offer it to their guests, for example, as this license is also required for the private storage of alcohol.
Possible consequences of drinking alcohol in the UAE
Basically, four things should always be taken into account when consuming alcoholic beverages in the UAE:
- Never drink alcohol in public! This is strictly forbidden and may lead to immediate arrest by the police.
- Never drive a car under the influence of alcohol! In the UAE there is a strict 0.00 per mille limit. Even driving a car after drinking a small glass of beer can lead to arrest and further draconian consequences if an accident happens or you get into a traffic control.
- Never be drunk in public! Since drunkenness in the public is strictly punished, it is recommended to drive always from the restaurant/event directly with the taxi/ride home or not to leave with the consumption of alcohol at home any longer its apartment/house.
- Never get into trouble drunk! Most people know that after a glass or two the inhibition threshold often drops too much and that discussions can get louder. Nevertheless, it should be avoided at all costs – especially when dealing with locals, Muslims or service providers (taxi drivers, waiters, etc.) – to get involved in a conflict. It is not uncommon for the police to be called in such cases, which then usually only determine whether alcoholisation is taking place, regardless of whether the alcohol was consumed or acquired in a “legal place” and whether the conflict took place in a place where the consumption of alcohol is permitted.
The consequences of violations of alcohol regulations are usually very severe: these range from driving disqualifications and high minimum fines, to prison sentences and deportation from the UAE, possibly even to whipping (this is still provided for in the UAE Criminal Code as a possible punishment for drunkenness, although it has not been applied in recent years and – according to criminal law experts – may not be applied to non-Muslims either). The authorities never accept the excuse, especially of many tourists, that they did not know anything about the local rules; the old saying “ignorance does not protect from punishment” always applies here to the regulations on alcohol consumption.
In summary it can be said that in the vast majority of cases there is no problem if one likes to go for a drink in the UAE as long as one adheres to the local rules. But it should always be borne in mind that one lives in a Muslim country and that alcohol consumption by expatriates/tourists is tolerated here only as an exception and that we ultimately live as guests in a country in which religion is an essential part of one’s lifestyle and social structure. Muslims are forbidden to consume alcohol. We should therefore also be careful not to offer or consume alcohol when Muslim guests are present at our home. Even when inviting Muslim friends, I have always handled it in such a way that I have even cleared the open bar of alcoholic drinks, as the mere sight of alcohol is perceived as disturbing by some Muslims (however, it is recommended to use cooking utensils in which pork was NEVER prepared).
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