Doha, Qatar – In a dusty neighborhood on the outskirts of the Qatari capital, guards stand on duty at a fenced compound surrounded by barbed wire, carefully checking passports and permits before letting anyone inside. But this is not a prison or a high-security area associated with the ongoing World Cup.
It’s the liquor store.
Strict alcohol restrictions are a fact in this conservative Muslim country in the Arabian Peninsula, which follows the same strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam as its neighbor Saudi Arabia. Football fans heading to Qatar for the World Cup got a taste of it just before the tournament when authorities canceled beer sales at stadiums.
Yet games continue to pop corks into luxury boxes. Fans fill pints from beer towers in dozens of alcohol-licensed hotel bars, lounges and nightclubs. The sale of $14 Budweisers in Doha’s FIFA Fan Zone continues unabated.
“That’s not to say you need alcohol to fuel your life, but it’s a good time,” said Ed Ball, an American who created an online map for drinkers in Doha to find bars. “The idea that is being passed around that drinking is not allowed in Qatar is wrong. There are places.”
In addition to the bars, there is the liquor store, where non-Muslim residents and visitors can shop after applying for a government-issued license. Located next to an Indian school in Doha’s dusty Abu Hamour district, it’s operated by Qatar Distribution Co., a state-owned company under the Qatar Airways umbrella that has exclusive rights to distribute alcohol and pork in the country.
The store – currently the only one selling spirits in Qatar – operates on an appointment system that dates back to the strict coronavirus regulations that ruled that country just ahead of the World Cup.
During a recent visit, guards twice checked the ID and appointments of an Associated Press reporter. Barbed wire covers the site’s high walls, which prevent the public from seeing inside. Signs warn that any abuse directed at the guards could result in a liquor license being revoked. Empty silver beer kegs are stacked in the parking lot.
At the end of a chlorine-scented corridor, customers reach the entrance to the store. Inside, the shelves and stalls are stocked with bottles of wine, mostly priced between $12.50 and $45. A liter of Absolut Vodka costs $42, while a liter of Jack Daniels Whiskey costs a buyer $70. A 24-pack of standard Budweiser cans costs nearly $52.
A small section of the store offers frozen pepperoni pizzas with pork, bacon rashers, spam, and canned pork and beans.
Customers filled their carts or carried bottles and cans in their hands, checking shopping lists or texting family members to check what was needed. Some wore FIFA passports for the tournament around their necks.
Outside the store, a 31-year-old British woman who works as a school teacher in Qatar filled the trunk of her car. She declined to give her name, but dismissed criticism of the drinking and the tournament given the connotations drinking can have in Qatari society.
“It’s really not that big of a deal,” she said of Qatar’s licensing system. “It’s like going to the supermarket — for alcohol.”
She added that she also thinks the sales restrictions on the matches make sense. “I’m British. I know what it’s like to be with drunk people all the time.”
Across the Persian Gulf, alcohol remains banned in Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the Sheikhdom of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. Alcohol consumption is considered haram or forbidden in Islam. Imams point to a verse in the Qur’an that describes wine as “the work of Satan”.
But the region as a whole has a long history with alcohol, itself an Arabic word. The 8th-century poet Abu Nawas was even known for his ‘Khamriyyat’ or ‘Wine Poems’.
Both alcohol and pork are subject to 100% import duty. Qatar says it is using the tax revenue to improve healthcare, infrastructure, education and other public services.
Visitors are not allowed to bring alcohol into the country. Many hotels are dry and prohibit guests from bringing alcohol to their rooms.
Despite these restrictions, Qatar sold 23.2 million liters of alcoholic beverages in 2021, according to Euromonitor International data. Though dwarfed by the UAE’s 115 million liters sold over the same period, Qatar’s figures show growth of 14.6% as the pandemic eased.
An accompanying Twitter account features him drink two pints of beer in 10 seconds.
“For me, drinking is just like eating. It’s just part of the culture,” Ball told the AP after returning to Seattle, where he works for Boeing Co. “I know it’s not part of Qatar… but it’s also part of the World Cup. One of the biggest sponsors is Budweiser, so it just goes to show that it kind of goes hand in hand.”
Bars in Qatar typically scan the IDs of those entering, and many are working on a voucher system during the tournament to ensure fans spend at least a certain amount.
On Saturday night, a group of Russians shouted profanities at the US team during their game against the Netherlands as they fired shots and posed for photos with servers at Doha’s Irish Harp.
Dermot O’Callaghan, a 66-year-old football fan from Dublin, Ireland, was enjoying a much quieter pint at the bar and swaying along with Cuban band Chicas Melao.
“It’s very pleasant, you can have a drink here in the evenings if you want,” said O’Callaghan. “They have a whole group of fans walking around looking for a drink.”