The Strange Paradox That Is Drinking in Dubai

Dubai is notorious for its paradoxical drinking culture, which is equal parts prohibitionist and over-the-top. Andrew Madigan on his year spent working as a Guinness taste-tester in the city's bars and clubs.

drinking in dubai illustration

From 2002 to 2003 I was Guinness taste-tester in Dubai. My official title was Stout Evaluative Engineer (SEE). I’m not even sure if it was a real title. We’ll come back to this.

On any given night in Dubai there are thousands of people—Muslim and non-Muslim—crowding the city’s bars, which are as diverse and specialized as they are in the West. The police generally turn a blind eye to public drunkenness and flamboyant revelry, though occasionally a gay bar will be shut down (homosexuality is prohibited) or arrests will be made for sex on the beach (the act, not the drink). Like most nations, the UAE wears two faces—one that wants to appease the devout and sanctimonious and another that wants to lure tourists with luxury, entertainment and a permissive atmosphere. This contradiction is evident in everything from prostitution—which is illegal but rampant—to the banking industry.

Alcohol is legal, but technically only hotels and health clubs are permitted to operate bars. That said, I lived within walking distance of the Bunker, a free-standing dive in an otherwise empty lot. There were two barbells in the corner and a weed-infested swimming pool out back, warm enough to brew tea. No one ever swam in the pool or lifted a barbell, but perhaps their mere existence was enough to keep the police from shutting it down. Or Maybe the Bunker was owned by a sheikh with enough wasta—power, coercive force—to do as he liked. Aside from places like the Bunker, or one of the city’s many brothels, drinking in Dubai means drinking in hotels.

If you want to buy alcohol, you’re limited to state-run liquor stores where you’re required to present an alcohol permit acquired from the local police. To get one you need two photos, a passport, a certified letter from an employer attesting to your salary and 100 dirhams (about $25). You’re then presented with the permit inside a faux-leather cover embossed with a majestic eagle and the words: Just say not [sic] to drugs.

The amount of alcohol you can buy is keyed to your salary, and—by design, of course—the minimum salary amount, about $600 per month, excludes most of the foreign laborers who make up the majority of the population. This accounts for all of the Subcontinentals lurking around after dark, bribing people to get them a bottle.

While the state-run liquor shops are uniform and furtive, the city’s nightlife is glamorous and publicity-hungry. There’s always a new hotel, a new lounge, a new promotion. And I, unwittingly, ended up at the center of its more absurd excesses.

Once we’d convened at the bar and created a “party atmosphere,” the real work began. Assess the taste of the beer. Make notes. Use the glassware to rate color and consistency. We absolutely did not know what we were doing, but there was a science professor among us who claimed to be packing litmus papers for a pH test. At this point a crowd was supposed to gather, “to see what these crazy guys were up to.” Rahman encouraged us—I don’t want to admit this, so I’m whispering—to “vibe” with the bar patrons. Even with a PhD in English I don’t know what this means.

During my time in the Emirates I was working as an English professor at Zayed University and as a restaurant reviewer for the The Dubai Explorer on the side. Presumably because of my role as the latter, I was asked to join a team of Guinness taste-testers.

“It’s easy,” said Omar, my colleague at the university and the ringleader of the SEE operation. “Just show up, rate the beer, take notes.”

After a night of drinking and Michael Jackson impersonation at a Halloween party, all I could muster was, “sure.” He gave me a time and date for my first assignment. No interview, no training program. I should have asked follow-up questions, but instead I sat down and ate a chicken shawarma. I was in a fog after all the crotch-grabbing. I needed sleep and had a glove to iron.

The work was conducted along a “pub” crawl, beginning at the new Fairmont hotel, across Sheikh Zayed Road from the Bunker. All dark wood, brass rails and green banker’s lamps, Long’s was classy and exclusive—not exactly the sort of place you’d expect to see men in white lab coats and goggles dancing under a strobe light. Omar waved me over. Rahman—who appeared to be a short, bold, paunchy teenager—slapped a nametag on my shirt and handed me a goody bag. “Kit up, Andrew!” Presumably he was my supervisor.

The kit: lab coat, goggles, thermometer, ruler, beaker, Erlenmeyer flask, test tube, clipboard and a pen. Against my better judgment, I got dressed.

There were nine of us. We met in a back room with the manager and head bartender. Instructions were given—concise, vague instructions. Rahman called us together for high-fives. (I’d gotten into academia almost exclusively to avoid high-fives, but here I was.) We were advised to laugh, “whoop it up” and dance in a festive but not overtly drunken manner. I’m not sure what I’m less inclined to do, dance or whoop it up, but I was starting to feel nostalgic for high-fives.

Once we’d convened at the bar and created a “party atmosphere,” the real work began. Assess the taste of the beer. Make notes. Use the glassware to rate color and consistency. We absolutely did not know what we were doing, but there was a science professor among us who claimed to be packing litmus papers for a pH test. At this point a crowd was supposed to gather, “to see what these crazy guys were up to.” Rahman encouraged us—I don’t want to admit this, so I’m whispering—to “vibe” with the bar patrons. Even with a PhD in English I don’t know what this means.

After an hour, we moved on to Zinc. I tested my own drinks, and those of the people I met. The temperature was usually off, and the taste was often bitter or slightly burnt. (Dubai’s climate is no friend to alcohol, nor are the slipshod methods of storage and transportation.)

In the morning my clipboard notes looked like cuneiform. I wrote something new and emailed it to Rahman, which I did about once a month for a year. During this time I never stepped foot in a SEE office or met anyone who identified himself as a representative of Guinness & Co. If my testing notes were ever read—if they were analyzed, collated and distributed—I have no idea. Rahman didn’t have a business card. I was paid in cash. Like almost everything else in Dubai, the experience was veiled in mystery, fear, freeform weirdness, paradoxical attitudes and unspoken arrangements.

Most of this incoherence originates with the culture of government. To secure a job here, for example, it’s necessary to have a copy of your diploma notarized, certified by the State Department, certified by the UAE Embassy and forwarded to your potential employer for verification. If you’re married, the same process applies to the marriage license. If you have kids, repeat for each birth certificate. Sometimes the paperwork is sent back, for no apparent reason. You must do it again, repaying all the relevant fees. It’s like Kafka, with less clarity and more red tape.

The bureaucracy of alcohol is equally obscure. None of the important rules are committed to paper or disseminated by the media. Sharjah, for example, is a dry Emirate. You cannot bring alcohol into or across its borders, but non-Muslim faculty at the American University may consume alcohol on campus. How are they supposed to get it there?

At the Chinese restaurant in the center of town, if you ask for “special tea,” they bring you a celadon pot of beer. Everyone knows about it. Is the beer non-alcoholic? Is the restaurant actually a health club? Is it part of the Chinese consulate and, therefore, not on Emirati soil? No one knows.

While my tenure as a SEE wound down, the Bunker was demolished to make way for the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. A bad trade-off, I’d say. It occurred to me several years later that maybe I’d never been a Guinness taste-tester. Maybe I was just a guy in a lab coat sticking his thermometer in the pint glasses of hundreds of strangers.

Related Articles

Andrew J. Khaled Madigan is a freelance writer. He has spent the last 20 years working as an editor and professor in Tokyo, New York, South Korea, Dubai, Okinawa, the UK, Al Ain and Central Europe. His novel, Khawla's Wall, is published by Second Wind.

FROM AROUND THE WEB