The stand taken by Qatar to ban alcohol on The Pearl in Doha will force others to challenge the contradictions inherent in Arab tourism, argues Viability managing partner Guy Wilkinson.
There has been no small concern in the Middle East tourism sectors over the last few months about some potentially negative effects of the Arab Spring. While Dubai has been enjoying a true windfall of tourism demand over the last year thanks to its apparently ‘untouchable’ status within our otherwise notably destabilised region, several key competing tourism destinations in the region are undergoing natural developments resulting from the growth of democratic expression that could have a major impact on their tourism sectors in future.
The most recent news is that Qataris concerned about immoral behaviour on their iconic showcase residential resort development, The Pearl Qatar, have influenced the government to ban the sale of alcohol there. Already, F&B outlets there have reported reduced levels of business. Such occurrences may surprise new observers in the region, but for us old hands, they represent a resurgence of Qatar’s old, ambivalent attitude to alcohol. Just a few years back, one could only find it in a few luxury hotels and clubs with strict entry procedures that kept out all but a few western expats who were deemed trustworthy of holding their liquor. The fact that Qatar’s population has increased so fast over the last few years, primarily through a growth in expatriates, has evidently not changed the concerns of Muslims (and it’s probably true to say, decent people of all faiths) there over the many ill effects of alcohol consumption. At the end of the day, regardless of how small a proportion the native Qataris represent within the total population of Qatar, it’s their country and we as foreign guests would do well to respect their opinions and decisions — regardless of any economic cost. It’s not a question of business.
Qatar is hardly the first Gulf state in which the local population has expressed its concerns over the sale of alcohol. It happened in 2010 in Bahrain, when political pressure groups forced the closure of the many bars and clubs in the one- and two-star hotels there. Oman, despite in principle being ‘cool’ about alcohol, has also kept it confined to a relatively small number of hotels and restaurants. There is no need to mention Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Sharjah, in which alcohol is simply banned.
Of course, it is perfectly possible to have a great holiday without drinking. However, attitudes to alcohol are symptomatic of a much wider return to core Muslim values in the region. We journalists were not even allowed to use the word, having instead to refer elliptically to ‘beverages’ made of grape and so on. Conceivably, those days will return sooner than we think. As the countries of the Maghreb slowly metamorphose into democracies, it seems pretty clear already from news coming out of Egypt and Tunisia that Muslim political parties offer the most comforting alternative to iron-handed dictatorships. However liberal these parties’ particular versions of Islam are, the fact is that there is a big contradiction between the ideals and family values of a Muslim society, with the national strategy to attract hoards of western tourists to behave on local beaches just as they would in the West – i.e., men and women freely mixing, exposing their skin and imbibing alcohol. The irony is that they do so without shame — in both the positive and negative senses. For westerners, there is no reason to be ashamed of their behaviour. For Muslims and Arabs, the shame is in fact double, consisting in the behavior itself and the fact that the perpetrators feel no shame. This is a gaping divide in terms of attitude, which frankly has always represented a major anomaly at the core of international tourism into many parts of the Arab World (not, of course, in such places as Makkah, but along many coastlines). Now that other important anomalies are being sorted out — like the existence of unfair, corrupt governments, for example — it would seem naive to expect the contradictions inherent in Arab tourism to persist unchallenged.
Guy Wilkinson is a partner of Viability, a specialist hotel and real estate consulting firm in Dubai. Email him at email@example.com