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A beer run in Qatar, and an oasis that isn’t open to all

DOHA — The questions spilled out almost as soon as the car doors closed. Was it crowded? How was the selection? And what about the prices?

A United States supporter holds a cup of Budweiser Zero alcohol-free beer prior to the Qatar 2022 World Cup Group B football match between US and Wales at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium in Al-Rayyan, west of Doha on Nov 21, 2022.

A United States supporter holds a cup of Budweiser Zero alcohol-free beer prior to the Qatar 2022 World Cup Group B football match between US and Wales at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium in Al-Rayyan, west of Doha on Nov 21, 2022.

DOHA — The questions spilled out almost as soon as the car doors closed.

Was it crowded? How was the selection? And what about the prices?

The taxi driver, who went by Mr Shaj, then peered into the rearview mirror and politely asked to see my receipt. I passed it forward, and he scanned it up and down as we swayed through traffic.

Mr Shaj had picked me up down a side street in the fringes of Doha, inside the razor-wire-topped walls of the Qatar Distribution Company. The QDC, as it is widely known, is the sole importer and distributor of alcohol in Qatar, a Muslim country where the sale and consumption of booze is heavily regulated. Cocktails, wine and beer are served at a smattering of luxury hotels, but the QDC’s two branches are the only places that sell alcohol for home consumption.

“It’s probably one of the happiest places in Doha,” said Ms Rachel Harris, who is originally from Australia but has lived in Qatar for 15 years.

The QDC has stood for years as a colorful example of a broader, delicate dance within Qatari society that predated the World Cup: The country’s effort to balance its conservative values — including, in this case, a religion that forbids alcohol consumption — with its desire to open itself to the world. That line between tradition and accommodation rarely seems fixed in place.

“Everyone is welcome to come to Qatar,” Mr Hassan al-Thawadi, the head of the World Cup’s local organising committee, said in an interview during the long run-up to the tournament. “What we ask is that when people come, just to respect that we’re a relatively conservative nation.”

For international residents looking for a taste of home, then, the QDC offers a boozy lifeline. Access to the store is granted through a state-run application process. The privilege was extended in recent weeks to teams, sponsors and news media organisations here for the World Cup. Fans were not allowed to apply.

On a visit one recent morning, three employees of the United States national soccer team were pushing around three shopping carts piled high with bottles and cases of beer — and wondering aloud if they should grab a fourth.

They were presented with an international selection of drink options: aperitifs from France, sake from Japan, wines from Chile and Australia, beers from Mexico, Brazil and the Philippines. There was even a separate room stuffed with freezers and devoted entirely to pork products, which are otherwise unavailable in restaurants and grocery stores around the country: frozen pepperoni pizzas and shrink-wrapped pork chops, cans of Spam and cocktail wieners, overstuffed packs of bacon. A sign above the door was both a label and a warning: “Pork Shop,” it read, “For non-Muslims”.

Signs around the building announced special deals tied to the World Cup. Artificial stadium crowd noise filtered out through speakers near the entrance. A German journalist in loafers examined a bottle of Italian wine.

But the US soccer staff members had to be sensible. Each individual permit holder is granted a monthly quota of 2,000 Qatari riyals, roughly US$550 (S$745). And the Americans were on what amounted to a supply mission: They needed enough alcohol not only for their colleagues traveling with the team but also to meet the needs of the large group of players’ family and friends. That group, one of the staff members said, had been peppering them with desperate requests. Even with multiple permits, the Americans were hunting for bargains.

“This isn’t, like, sipping wine,” one of the US team staff members said. “This is survival wine.”

It soon became clear, though, that the happiest place in Doha (for those inclined to drink) was also one of the most exclusive.

In the car, Mr Shaj, who is Muslim and from Sri Lanka, told me he had never been inside the QDC despite living in Qatar for 12 years. The store’s permit requirements include a minimum salary of 3,000 Qatari riyals a month (about US$825) to even apply for entry. That puts legal alcohol essentially out of reach for the hundreds of thousands of immigrant laborers who make up nearly 90 per cent of Qatar’s population; many of them make close to the minimum wage of US$275 a month.

While the QDC has been hailed as an oasis for thirsty visitors, others, including Mr Shaj, see its strict restrictions — and its limits on access — as unfair. To them, the rules are merely another example of the sort of structural inequalities that are part and parcel of daily life for them in Qatar.

Unable to access alcohol in the same way as white-collar residents and high-end visitors, he and others instead rely on a black market for it. His beverage of choice, he said, is vodka, which he buys at a considerable markup and only drinks inside the room he shares with three other workers.

“This double standard,” Mr Shaj said, “I don’t like.”

His sentiments were echoed on a recent Friday night in Asian Town, an area of Doha populated by tens of thousands of foreign workers from countries such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The neighborhood is only two miles (3.2km) from the hidden bounty of the QDC, but it feels in some ways like a universe apart.

“Muslim, Hindu, who doesn’t drink here?” said Mr Hari, a heavy goods vehicle driver from Kathmandu, Nepal, who was headed to a World Cup fan zone after having a few glasses of whiskey at home.

Like Mr Shaj, he asked that his full name not be revealed out of fear of running afoul of the authorities or potential employers.

“Everyone is scared to talk about it because it is forbidden here,” Mr Hari said.

After nine years in Qatar, Mr Hari said that he has eked out enough money to purchase brand-name alcohol on the secondary market. But he knows most other workers do not have that luxury. Some in Asian Town buy amateur brews made from fermented fruit. Others turn to homemade, chemically enhanced, hard spirits.

One popular variety of local moonshine, nicknamed Sri Lanka, is sold in plastic water bottles for around US$8, Hari said. It is potent and possibly dangerous: Medical officials in Nepal believe that such concoctions might have resulted in the deaths of migrant workers in Qatar and elsewhere in the Gulf.

The scene in Asian Town was a far cry from the state-sanctioned bonhomie of the QDC.

Shoppers last week were weaving their carts around pyramids of stacked beer cans. A 24-pack of Budweiser was selling for 188 Qatari riyals, or roughly US$52. Nearby, a bottle of Cristal Champagne was listed for about US$489.

There are strict rules for people allowed inside. Aside from income restrictions, customers cannot come from member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Regular customers pay membership fees but cannot resell the alcohol or even give it to someone as a gift. And upon leaving, buyers must keep their purchases concealed until they make it home.

Overall, though, the government in recent years has been making the QDC experience more customer friendly. During the pandemic, the store has introduced perks like online ordering and home delivery. Customers these days get text messages advertising special sales.

As the US team members shopped, a QDC employee sidled over to let them know that their individual quotas had been doubled for the World Cup. That would certainly make their lives a lot easier.

They thanked her and rolled their jangling caravan toward the cash registers.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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