The Arab thirst: booze and bad behaviour

Despite prohibitions, alcohol is ingrained in the Middle East

Dispatches
An expat drinks beer at a boat party in the Gulf. Gulf cities have become party towns in recent years (©Amos Chapple/Shutterstock)

Contradictions surrounding the role of alcohol in society are found deep in the DNA of Middle Eastern cultures. Back in pre-Islamic Arabia, what we now know as the haj was practised as it is nowadays. It was, however, primarily a meeting of the Arabian tribes, who put down their weapons and grievances, congregated around the Kaaba in Mecca and circumambulated it in the same anti-clockwise direction they do today. This, however, was not a meeting of a unified religion, but of diverse tribal-based cults, and each had its particular gods and holy relics, which were presented at the Kaaba as part of the congregation. It was also a time of drinking and drunkenness. Wine, wheat ales and forms of mead (khamr) were deeply integrated into the tribal, social and ritual life of Arabia.

Despite good intentions at the annual congregation, the combination of diverse and antipathetic tribes coming together in one space for a brief spell with large amounts of alcohol caused predictable outcomes—rather as with multiple bands of football supporters coming together collectively to worship their apotheosised Messis or Ronaldos with an endless supply of booze. The results were often messy, with bickering, fighting and new blood feuds breaking out. Something had to be done about it.

Muhammad’s solution to this was typically clear and brilliant. No more tribal icons, just the one god. Importantly, for the purposes of our discussion, he also ruled no more alcohol. The haj and the role of the Kaaba were thus, in a short period of time, transformed. Unity and peace replaced division and disorder. The newly-sanitised collective ritual was set as the pristine centrepiece for the new abstemious religion. If only all leaders were as clear in their thinking and actions as the Prophet.

There was a problem, however. Arabians still loved a drink—and indeed they still do. There has thus been a tension since the prophetic prohibition that remains active and unresolved. A whole lot of drinking goes on throughout the Middle East.

The Western view on the region is that alcohol is forbidden by Islam. This is largely true, though some sects, such as the Alevi in Turkey, do allow it. Most agree, however, that the foundations of a ban come in key passages in the Koran, which include a warning to the faithful not to come to prayers drunk. This is a rather minimal proscription to which most of us could happily abide.

Nowadays, in much Islamic jurisprudence, alcohol itself is not haram (forbidden) but getting drunk is. For that reason, Muslims in many countries are able to use alcohol-based cleaners for instance. In Saudi Arabia, where “non-alcoholic” beers of up to 0.05 per cent are popular, a fatwa was recently pronounced advising that this level of alcohol was acceptable, as it would not lead to drunkenness. Generally, among Muslim communities, although it is agreed that drinking alcohol is haram, it is not universally perceived to be as haram as other moral breaches. For those seeking it, this gives the faithful a little moral wiggle room when it comes to opening the minibar in a Dubai hotel.

Three countries in the Middle East currently ban alcohol for both Muslims and non-Muslims—Saudi Arabia, Iran and Kuwait. In reality, however, all three countries are awash with booze. I once asked for advice from a travel agent friend on the possibility of getting a drink in Tehran. After the laughter had died down, he replied: “Of course you can get a drink: easy peasy.”

Saudi Arabia famously has a harsh regime; and, as the cradle of Islam, it is easy to assume that the political elite’s ban on alcohol has its roots deep in history, certainly to the 18th century, when the Saud clan allied with the puritanical Mr Wahhab. But no. Alcohol was freely available in Saudi Arabia until fairly recently.

Once oil was discovered, the newly-rich Saud family emerged onto the world stage as a kind of alcoholic version of the Beverly Hillbillies. Whereas it is claimed that the founding ruler, Ibn Saud, was abstemious, his many male offspring partied hard in London, Monte Carlo and indeed Riyadh and Jeddah too. There are lots of (true) stories about young Saudi princes inviting multiple sex workers up to alcohol and drug-fuelled all-nighters at the Ritz, Claridge’s and the Dorchester. Back in their homeland, the princes’ palaces were also places of excess, and occasional tragedy. The party, however, came to an abrupt halt when one of the junior princes emerged at an evening revel waving a gun, and shot and injured a British diplomat. For the abstemious king, enough was enough, and in usual Saudi fashion a blanket decree was issued—alcohol was now banned for non-Muslims as well as Muslims, particularly Saudi princes.

The Saudi enthusiasm for alcohol-fuelled partying, however, has not diminished. Saudis now generally abide by the drinking ban while in their home country. However, the strict ban crystallised a view among the more libertine Saudi men that once outside the country you could still party hard. One major beneficiary of the Saudi predilection for playing away has been Bahrain, which since the ban has served as a one-stop full-service facility for Saudi men seeking booze and prostitutes.

Every weekend a stream of Dodge Vipers, Maseratis and Landcruisers whizzes across King Fahd Causeway towards the bars and women of Manama. Once satiated, the hungover men return on the Saturday evening to join their families and resume their lives of pious sobriety. The bridge was completed in 1986, and for some years afterwards there were regular crashes involving still-drunk Saudi revellers returning home. A common occurrence was cars literally falling off the bridge, until new barriers were built to contain the drunken drivers.

The Saudi princes are still at it, particularly in the clubs of Knightsbridge and Mayfair. Sometimes the revelries spill out onto the streets and catch media attention. In a recent case, a Saudi prince started scrapping with a rival outside an exclusive nightclub and was hospitalised as a result.

Kuwaitis are also famous for their drunkenness and whoring. A general rule, it seems, is the stricter a country’s moral regime, the worse its young—and not so young—males behave.

On one occasion I was visiting a friend in Pattaya in Thailand, the world’s biggest and most notorious red-light area. I jumped aboard a songthaew, a kind of open-air minibus, and was soon joined by four young men accompanied with two very obvious sex workers. As we drove, they joked loudly in Arabic and passed a whisky bottle around. I worked out they were Kuwaiti. They said something rude about me, which I understood, and I thus decided to reply in a friendly fashion in Arabic, asking if they were from Kuwait. As I did so, the joking stopped and they looked startled. One pressed the stop button and they all jumped off—they had been outed as the naughty Kuwaiti boys they were.

Whereas some Saudis and Kuwaitis tend to have a binary view on the application of Islamic moral proscriptions, their fellow Arabians, the Omanis, are generally much more sensible. Although alcohol is officially banned among the mainly Ibadhi Muslims in the Sultanate, many locals ignore it. Thus, every evening the bars are packed with men downing their favourite tipple, resplendent in the traditional national costume of sandals, white dishdasha and a kumma (cap) or masaa (turban). Omanis have a long seafaring history and a rich African-influenced culture. They, unlike other Gulf Arab peoples, are confident about their place in their world, and their beliefs—so confident that they often choose to overlook them.

In this sense, they have much in common with Irish lapsed Catholics—and like their Hibernian counterparts, they love nothing better than a drink and a laugh. Like Kuwaitis and Saudis, Omanis are keen travellers. Unlike Kuwaitis and Saudis, however, they do not quickly dispense with their traditional garb and morals, but carry on as normal, and that normal may involve a few drinks. But no shootings, no scrapping in the streets.

Omanis have a long tradition of drinking, as attested by muscat wine. At the time of the Portuguese occupation of Muscat, the capital city of Oman, they became fond of the widespread local grapes, which were made into a fine local brew. Wine and spirits are still produced (albeit illegally) in the Jebel al Akhdar region of the country. Everybody knows it: nobody really objects.

Other regions have a long tradition of viticulture. The Bekaa Valley region in Lebanon continues to produce some of the highest quality wines in the world, and sampling them is always a delight on any trip to Beirut. Hezbollah controls much of the Bekaa Valley, and has a hands-off attitude towards wine production and distribution, as they profit from it. Conditions for wine production in Syria are not ideal at the moment; however, the climate and soils are, and the Bargylus vineyard, located close to the coastal city of Latakia, produces plump, dense grapes of very high quality. These are currently transported over the border to Lebanon to produce outstanding wines, such as those of Chateau Marsyas.

Of course, the other great drinkers in the Middle East are the expats. In the Gulf region, these were traditionally oil workers, or rig pigs as they are commonly known. Their thirst for beer and spirits laid the foundations of the drinking infrastructure in the Gulf States.

In Abu Dhabi, there is a small, rather grubby, hotel on the corniche, now dwarfed by skyscrapers. This is the last remaining hotel from the earliest days of oil discovery. It was craftily built next to the headquarters of the original Abu Dhabi oil company, which at the time was staffed predominantly by British, American and Dutch men. After a long day prospecting in the desert, they wanted beer, lots of it. And so, the Ally Pally bar was opened, and remains a testament to the uncompromisingly male revels of former years.

The local Arab rulers, though disapproving of alcohol being sold in their country, clearly saw that if they wanted the oilmen to stay, they had to have bars and adult fun. In this way, the classic expat pub was born—a distillation and microcosm of all things a rig pig might need: a full bar, darts board, pool table and an adequate supply of hookers.

Now all the Gulf cities, except those in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, are dotted with old and new bars—commonly themed on British or Irish pubs. The original rig pigs have now been joined by a multiplicity of workers. Most of these come from the Indian subcontinent, but they have bars of their own, with Indian food and music. Westerners nowadays mainly come as teachers, accountants, designers or engineers—a diverse collection of people who usually have two things in common. The first is that they came for the tax-free money. The second is that they drink far more than they did back home.

The Gulf cities have thus in recent years been party towns at the weekend. The demob-happy expats turn up at Happy Hour and drink, eat and dance as if there’s no tomorrow. The bars, however, are rather fake and charmless, and in the sweltering summer months they become stale and claustrophobic.

The party in the Gulf, however, is running out of gas. The Gulf states are facing up to the hard economic reality that low oil prices are not generating enough revenue to sustain their economic development, and one of the methods they are using to line the treasury coffers is VAT and other taxes. Expat drinkers were an obvious target for these taxes, and in all of the Gulf countries where drinking is officially allowed, their deployment has basically doubled the price of drinks. The taxes have come in rather suddenly, and equally suddenly the bars are noticeably quieter. Even the Ally Pally bar, which has echoed to drunken laughter for 40 years, is now almost empty, apart from the odd Emirati who can afford the drinks and sits in Western gear watching the football.

Although drinking continues unabated in the wider Middle East, it seems that alcohol in the Gulf region has peaked—except in dear old Oman, where the genial locals keep the tills ringing until closing time.