Qatar’s move to ban the sale of alcohol on its flagship Pearl development may hint at the start of a Gulf-wide clampdown on booze sales as governments look to pacify local fears, analysts said.
The GCC states may move to rein in sales and tighten alcohol legislation in a bid to walk the line between the expatriate population and their Muslim citizens in the wake of the Arab Spring unrest, said Guy Wilkinson, managing partner at Dubai hospitality consultancy, Viability.
“Qatar is hardly the first Gulf state in which the local population has expressed its concerns over the sale of alcohol,” he told Arabian Business. “Following the Arab Spring, I expect Muslim parties to have more and more influence over the control of alcohol throughout the region.”
The sale of alcohol is strictly monitored in five of the Gulf states with Saudi Arabia operating an outright ban on the sale and consumption of liquor.
The move to offer alcohol licenses to outlets and non-Muslims is largely a nod to the region’s expatriate workers, who vastly outnumber the local population. But the decision has been met with criticism from some citizens who oppose the sale of liquor in Muslim countries.
Qatar retains comparatively tight rules governing alcohol consumption, said Wilkinson.
“Just a few years back, one could only find it in just a few luxury hotels and clubs with strict entry procedures,” he said. “The fact that its population has increased so fast over the last few years has evidently not changed the concerns of Muslims over the potential ill effects of alcohol consumption, particularly in terms of moral behaviour.”
A number of Gulf states have seen conflicts over alcohol regulations in recent years. Pressure groups in Bahrain forced the closure of bars and clubs in the Gulf state’s three-star hotels in 2009, while Oman has chosen to confine the sale of booze to certain hotels and restaurants.
Dubai, widely seen as the Gulf’s most tolerant market, last June banned standalone bars and restaurants from displaying alcohol behind their bars.
Outlets licensed to serve alcohol but located outside hotels were forced to tint glass doors on fridges, move entire displays and even re-design whole bar areas to comply with the ban.
Speaking at the time, the manager of Dubai Marina Yacht Club said he feared the clampdown could impact on business.
“The alcohol display creates an ambience in the restaurant. People like to see the bottles, it gives a good look to the bar and restaurant. There might be a bit of a slump in business,” said Hari Haran.
Chiheb Ben Mahmoud, head of Hotel Advisory, for MENA at Jones Lang LaSalle, said the open sale of alcohol was always a “delicate balance” for Gulf governments.
“Sometimes, local public opinion is heated up on the back of a combination of factors. It is common for authorities in these cases to act swiftly in order to defuse tension and prevent the issue from heating up further and getting out of control,” he said.
The suspension of sales on the Pearl could be seen as “a wake-up call or a reminder of the invisible red lines not to be crossed.”