I know that drinking in Muslim countries can be expensive, if not downright difficult. We were introduced to the complexities during our first trip to an Islamic country, Morocco, years ago. There was no alcohol at our hotel, nor was alcohol served in the medina, the old town area, or at the night market. On our last night, we found a restaurant on the outskirts of the market that served beer on a roof top. It did not really bother us much, and we substituted fantastic mint tea for beer.
We use the price of alcohol in Indonesia to encourage our healthy habits. My cheapness prohibits excessive drinking at anything other than cheap Southeast Asia prices. So, it is much easier to detox in Bali than it would be in Vietnam.
In Dubai, we knew there were even more strict regulations on drinking, and we did not expect to paint the town read while there. But, we were offered a bottle of wine with our Argentine steak experience at Asado, and had free flow of wine and beer during our desert safari with Arabian Adventures. We ordered a ridiculously expensive, and fairly unpalatable, bottle of “French” red wine on our Dhow dinner cruise just to make it through the evening. In Dubai, it was not entirely clear to me where you could and could not buy alcohol, although I had heard about licenses to purchase and restrictions on which establishments could sell.
Then, things got strange in Doha.
Hotel Drinking Culture in Doha
Shortly after our friend moved to Doha, we received an email update on how he was doing. He mentioned something about the hotel drinking culture, something I was unaware of. Alcohol sales are strictly limited in the country, something I noticed as we passed the last chance duty free beyond Doha immigration - plenty of cigarettes but no alcohol. There are no liquor stores, and it is not sold at the super market. Even stranger, it is not sold at any restaurants in the city, unless they are in a hotel. This is why the drinking scene in Doha is limited solely to hotel bars in order to cater to foreigners. Generally, I I tend to avoid hotel bars when traveling at all cost - they tend to be an inauthentic experience at an unnecessarily inflated price.
During our fist night out in Doha, after a pleasant group dinner of Middle Eastern food accompanied by water and tea, we made our way over to the Mercure Hotel to hit up the Old Manor House bar, a Doha institution, and Doha-style dive bar. What I noticed as soon as we entered was not only the haze of smoke in the air, which reminded me of our Bosnian drinking experience, but the decor - outdated and old school. Dark green, but faded wall paper, old books, pictures of horses on the wall. The decor was not kitsch, and not purposefully stoic, it was just old.
Once I got over the dated and grungy decor, I noticed something even more unique - the clientele, there to experience the drinking scene in Doha. There was the typical collection of expats that apparently swarm every hotel bar in the city, but there were also locals - Qataris dressed in their long white robes, white head coverings, some with the trademark red and white checkered scarf. The bar was only open to foreigners and Qatari men, but it seems the Qatari men tend to hang out at Old Manor House because it is enclosed and private - and other Muslims cannot see them drinking.
It was surreal to see someone so obviously dressed as a practicing Muslim, sitting with a half dozen bottles of beer in front of him. I could not help but watch it all over our friend’s shoulder as I shook my head and helped to polish off a $40 pitcher of beer. There are no pictures of this local watering hole, though, as I did not think the Qataris would appreciate a photographic record of their behavior.
Showing Identification to Enter a Bar in Doha
When we entered the Mercure hotel our first night out in Doha, we entered the elevator as our friend started to curse to himself a little. He asked if we had brought our passports with us, or any identification. We almost never carry either with us. It is just our habit. I am always nervous that our passports will be stolen or lost, and to me they are safer back in the room. There is generally no reason to carry a driver’s license. We don’t drive. And, the US is the only place that asks us to show identification to drink in a bar or purchase liquor.
And then we drank in Qatar. Apparently, to even get into the Old Manor House dive bar you need to show a passport or a Qatari identification. They scan the ID into their computer system. It is unclear whether it is to keep track of who is drinking, or where people are going. There was something mentioned about safety - if something happens, then they have a list of people who were there. Interesting logic.
We had nothing on us, other than a single credit card and an ATM card. We needed to go to the front desk and sweet talk our way in as I tried to pull up a PDF of our passports on our friend’s iPhone. I apologized profusely for not carrying it with me as our friend simultaneously apologized for not letting us know about the procedures.
The following night we went to the beach bar at the swanky St. Regis hotel for Reggae Night. The St. Regis is one of the most exclusive hotels in the city, and is gorgeous, as the St. Regis hotels usually are. Even here, they had a stand set up at the front of the beach to scan in passports and identification cards at a painfully slow pace. This time, we were prepared. It still, though, seemed a strange requirement.
There were no Qataris present at the open air beach bar. Instead, they perched along the railing of the pool area, looking down on is. It seemed more like we were animals in a zoo, and they were there to observe our strange, drinking behavior.
I thought Indonesia and Malaysia were expensive. Then, I went to Singapore. I thought drinking in Singapore was expensive. Then, I went to Doha. A pitcher of beer at Old Manor House was $40. I have no idea how much the gin and tonic cost at the Kempinski hotel, which we hit later that night. At the St. Regis, a bottle of Bombay Sapphire at the beach bar was about $200, which is probably in line with bottle service at many clubs in large cities, but for me, it still seemed astronomical, as there was little alternative.
As there seems to be little to do in Qatar other than work, shop, and drink the bottle services at the St. Regis Doha was considered a steal, at least for Doha drinking standards. I could image spending $50-$100 a person per night just to drink in Doha. It is a little extreme. But, that is how drinking works in Doha.