Qatar’s Impromptu Alcohol Ban

The Pearl

Jenifer Fenton reports from Qatar.

There is no flambé at Les Deux Magots, a high-end French restaurant on The Pearl, a mixed development man-made island in Qatar, which hopes to “redefine an entire nation” according to its sales pitch.

The sale of alcohol (and use even for cooking) has been banned on The Pearl (where I live) since mid-December, but a month later businesses have still not received formal notification of the reason for the prohibition or when and if it would end, according to interviews with more than a dozen people affected at various establishments. Rumors about the reason for the ban after so many years of tolerance for alcohol sale and consumption in five-star hotels and facilities have spread, ranging from the Qatari leadership’s desire to project a more religious image (Qatar’s attempt to stress its Wahhabi heritage while differentiating it from Saudi Arabia has been the topic of State Dept. cables past) to concerns about upcoming elections and a financial dispute between the government and resort developers.

Business is down about 80 percent at Les Deux Magots, according to the restaurant’s executive chef, Charbel Chaloubi. Chaloubi said the only consolation was the situation is the same for the restaurant’s main competitor Pampano, where only four people were dining one recent afternoon. Maze, Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant, where alcohol can account for 30 to 40 percent of patrons’ bills is also short of customers, according to assistant manager Deepthi Bandara.

The ban on alcohol sales on The Pearl highlights a tension the country is facing as it tries to build itself up as a regional destination, one that welcomes foreign investment, but maintains its cultural identity. Qatari nationals account for just a fraction of the total population.

Alcohol had previously been tolerated but severely restricted in the country. Major hotels, which were not hit with a ban, are allowed to sell alcohol to non-Muslims. Foreign nationals can also get a permit to purchase alcohol for private consumption.

Yet, according to Hassan Al Sayed, a prominent Qatari legal expert, there is not a single law in Qatar that allows for the sale of alcohol. However, there are several laws that criminalize it. Even “if there is any decision coming for example from the Emir or any department here (legalizing alcohol)… no in fact, this is not okay and this is against the law,” says Al Sayed, who was the dean of the College of Law at Qatar University and is now a professor of constitutional law.

Drinking and selling alcohol are not only against the law, but also against Qatar’s constitution, Al Sayed insists. He argues further that alcohol sales in the country, including at hotels and by Qatari companies such as Qatar Airways, have to stop or Qatar has to change its constitution, notably Article 1, which states “Islam is the State’s religion and the Islamic Sharia is the main source of its legislations.”

But if you change the constitution, then Qatar loses a part of its Islamic identity. (Not all laws have to adhere strictly to Islamic laws, Al Sayed said, but Muslims scholars and legal experts agree that alcohol is forbidden in Islam.)

Creating a “free zone” or arguing that The Pearl is an exception because it is reclaimed land cannot skirt the law or the country’s constitution, Al Sayed says. That could present a problem for Qatar when it hosts the World Cup 2022, when it is planned that drinking will be allowed in designated fan zones.

Hassan Al Ibrahim, a Qatari commentator, said he thinks that most Qataris support the ban but without knowing why the ban was put into effect. Rumors have suggested that Qataris were seen drinking on The Pearl, that a weekly party that went too far or that the ban stems from a change in management at the development company — but it is difficult to assess the larger policy picture. Al Ibrahim added that Qatar has always tried to be tolerant and project a more accepting image than the one currently being reflected by the decision to ban alcohol sales on The Pearl.

Even if the decision is soon reversed, the last thing investors needed was a surprise, which the ban was, they said. The future of the restaurant business on the island is in doubt. The “Pearl is a destination and Pearl has nothing apart from the alcohol for encouraging the people to dine (at) The Pearl restaurants,” said a business executive involved in discussions with United Development Company, the developer that is building The Pearl.

Plans for a two Michelin star restaurant, a club and a steakhouse have been put on hold until the issue of alcohol sales is clarified, according to an executive who did not want to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue. The restaurants were given no other incentive besides selling alcohol to open on the island, which is less populated and frequented than other neighborhoods in Doha. “We got nothing, nothing at all, but we paid everything up-front… no discount was given to us. Nothing,” the executive said.

Restaurant executives do believe the ban will be lifted and the country will not declare itself “dry”, but with Qatar now focused on the matter, it will be interesting to see how — and with what explanation — the country resolves the affair.

The Pearl developer UDC did not respond to a query about the ban. But two days after this post was initially written, UDC’s managing director abruptly resigned — a move that could be related to both the alcohol ban and alleged financial disputes between UDC and the government.