Friday, January 13, 2012
Clash of Cultures – Qatar and Alcohol
While I was away on business last month I missed the announcement that alcohol was no longer allowed to be served in restaurants on the Pearl Development, which was one of the few areas of Doha outside of an expensive hotel where alcohol was served.
The effect was immediate according to an article in Arabian Business, the number of customers in the restaurants has decreased by 50%.
While I'm not particularly fussed about the announcement (I'm not a big drinker), what I found more interesting was the comments section of the article, where it looks like a lot of people are weighing in. Comments generally fall into the following categories:
• Muslims who wholeheartedly approve because alcohol is haram;
• Muslims and non-Muslims who note that no one is forcing Muslims to drink alcohol and plenty of Muslim countries like Lebanon, UAE, and Egypt have alcohol yet it is not a threat to the Muslim population;
• Foreigners who argue that Qatar needs to make some sort of accommodation for foreigners (with the occasional dig at how Qatar is not going to have a successful 2022 World Cup by doing things like this);
• People concerned about the message this sends to people looking to develop businesses in Qatar -- the restaurant owners invested a lot of money developing the restaurants, calculated their margins based on the inclusion of alcohol, and suddenly the rules have changed on them;
• People who argue that Qatar is a strict Muslim country and you knew that when you signed on to be here. You can still get alcohol if you have a license or you can visit a bar in a hotel.
I think there is merit to point number four, it is hard to attract business if there is uncertainty, and actions like this reinforce uncertainty. I certainly have sympathies for the restaurant owners who decided to invest and open restaurants in the Pearl in part due to the alcohol (which any restaurant owner can tell you is one of the most profitable items). As for residents I find myself more in the “you knew it was a Muslim country when you signed on” side.
Given recent events in some parts of Europe regarding veils or the building of minarets it might be tough to argue that Qatar should be more open and accepting of Western culture. Western restaurant chains are here, movie theaters showing Hollywood films, you can get Western television on satellite, find the latest phones and gadgets, women don't have to wear headscarves or veils, and there are bars and nightclubs (just not as many as in a Western city). This is not Saudi Arabia. Heck, you don't even need to know Arabic to live here!
I speculate that Qatar is facing a tough balancing act. On the one hand it wants to respect its Islamic roots and morality while on the other has to make some accommodation for foreigners in order to attract workers, tourists, and business. In the time I've been here it is clear that His Highness the Emir doesn't want to be as strict as Saudi Arabia but he certainly doesn't want the country to be as liberal as Dubai or Bahrain. Too liberal and the religiously conservative citizens are unhappy, too conservative and the foreigners are less likely to come here, which means you'd need to pay a lot more to attract them. I don't know if there's an easy answer.
The comments to the article provide a window to that problem. Take some time to read them.