When we say “Arabia” we are quite sure that the image that comes to mind is endless desert, Bedouins in robes and camels. Well, yes, there’s a lot of sand. It does get awfully hot. Tourists do take camel rides. And many of the men do wear robes, called thobes. But today many of the countries of the Arabian peninsula have ultra-modern cities, with skyscrapers (including the world’s tallest), restaurants, museums and sports arenas.
What they don’t have is alcohol or, at least, not much.
The dining room at the Abu Dhabi Sheraton.
Muslims aren’t supposed to drink any alcohol and many observe this stricture. But a lot of the cities in Arabia, such as Dubai, Doha and Abu Dhabi are centers of finance, trade and of course oil. Quite a few expatriates live there, working for the big companies and governments. There are a lot of tourists these days, too. A fair number are Americans and Europeans who are used to a beer after work, a little whiskey on the weekend and wine with dinner. So, in some cases, exceptions are made for non-Muslim visitors.
We have worked in that part of the world and were usually able to have some wine when we wanted to. In the hotels that cater to Westerners, there is almost always a bar and a wine list available with meals, but there aren’t any in the unaffiliated restaurants. Prices tend towards the high side for what you can order and there isn’t a lot of variety.
Many Lebanese people work in Arabia. While Muslim, they make wine and do enjoy drinking it. Many of the wines you’ll see on the lists come from Lebanon and some of them are quite good. Chateau Musar is the best known and, in our opinion, the best tasting. You’ll also see Ksara and Massaya, which are worth trying. There are some American and European wines on the lists, but they’re not the ones you’d choose back home.
There are occasional problems that remind you that you’re far away. Women are not allowed in the bar of our hotel in Doha, Qatar without a male escort. They also check for passports to make sure that those men and women who enter are not Qataris. And one evening we were informed that it was a local holiday and no bars were open anywhere. (Room service bailed us out.)
Business dinners can be problematic. If your host is observant, you don’t want to impose on him (your host will always be a man) and order some wine. At the same time, we have been to dinners many times where half the group wants a glass or two with dinner, while the others abstain. It can be a little awkward, but it seems that everyone is used to it. If you’re the host, ask if anyone else wants any wine. If no one else is interested, it’s diplomatic to skip it yourself.
There are no wine stores and we strongly recommend that you not try to bring a few bottles in your luggage. (We have had no personal involvement with the police authorities, but the word is that such interactions are not very pleasant.) We were told that registered expatriates may have alcohol in some countries, with a permit. Saudi Arabia, however, is very strict in forbidding alcohol and there really is no chance of getting any there.
So if life should bring you to this vibrant part of the world, be a good guest and stick with the hotel bars.