Open air bar: Asian men taking swigs under a tree at the far end of the parking lot near the Traditional Souq in Naif Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/XPRESS

Dubai: The crowd starts milling around the car park from 5.30pm. At first they come in ones and twos, but soon the trickle turns into a steady stream. By sundown the transformation is complete. The parking lot is now an impromptu illegal open air bar, offering not just various types of alcohol but also ice cubes, soda, boiled eggs and kebabs. Customers are even offered drugs. “I can get you hash, African weed, Speed, (street name for a stimulating drug) what do you want?” a young man asks us.

“What have you got now?”

“Whisky,” he responds, pulling out a bottle from a sling bag.

This scene is not from the drug alleys of the West or South-East Asia but a daily occurrence at a car park near the Traditional Souq in Naif, the bustling district of Deira. The customers are mostly Asians, the dozen-odd bootleggers, all Africans.

As the evening wears on, more alcohol gets downed here than probably at some of the watering holes in town. The supply never seems to run out. Beer cans after beer cans keep reappearing like a conjurer’s coin from big white plastic sacks hung loosely from a tree at the far end of the parking lot.

Whiskey bottles are concealed below stacks of mattresses in pickup trucks. There’s more in sling backpacks hidden underneath the parked vehicles. We spot at least one car replenishing the stock. It’s a Dubai-plated white Toyota Corolla that has so far racked up Dh4,050 in traffic fines across various emirates. Crates full of liquor are hauled out of its trunk and moved to secluded spots as well-built African men with cellphones station themselves on the four corners of the car park to keep watch on the tight knit streets.

Mingling in the crowd, we buy an Indian whisky for Dh20 and a can of Philippine beer for Dh7.

Drink-pairings like chicken kebabs, salted peanuts and boiled eggs are now selling as briskly as the booze.

“Sir, you want delicious kebabs? It’s only Dh5,” said a young Bangladeshi man, holding out a paper bag with some chicken pieces inside.

While the availability of cheap alcohol has got people coming here in droves, it’s a nightmare for 34-year-old Pakistani parking attendant Syed Islam and the motorists who use the car park.

“Violent drunken brawls erupt here every few days,” said Syed. “The other day a man threw up on a car. When I objected, he got violent and attacked me with a liquor bottle,” he said, showing a scar on his neck.

Abdul Haq, 32, who owns the car park said: “I’ve approached the police many times but when a patrol shows up, the gang slips away. At times they damage the cars parked here, it’s their way of taking revenge.” he said.

An Iranian woman who lives nearby said she feels unsafe. “Our neighbourhood has been taken over by trouble-makers but I don’t want to report them as I fear repercussions,” she said requesting anonymity.

Indian IT professional Hafeez Ahmad, 37, who uses the car park daily, said fighting is commonplace among the bootleggers. “Last Friday, they nearly came to blows. My wife and kids got so terrified they didn’t sleep that night.

A pick-up driver said he routinely finds liquor bottles in the back of his truck. “How I will explain it if I am caught with them?” he asked.

A number of Asian workers found prosperity in the littered beer cans, selling them to recycling centres for a modest fee.

“The Africans chased them away,” Syed said. “One of them is now designated to pick up the empty beer cans and take them for recycling. They protect their territory fiercely and do not let anyone interfere or profit from their venture.

Alcohol consumption in the UAE is only permitted in designated areas such as licensed restaurants and bars in hotels. Drinking in public is illegal and the rule is zero tolerance, with penalties ranging up to six months in jail and a Dh2,000 fine. For bootlegging, which often results in savage turf wars, the punishment is more severe.

A Dubai police officer said that they are aware of the situation. “We are binding our time, it won’t suffice to merely apprehend the street peddlers. We plan to catch the kingpins in one sweep.”

In August 2010, XPRESS exposed an elaborate bootlegging ring targeting workers on the outskirts of the city. Residents said the thriving booze bazaar in the heart of the city was not only shockingly audacious but also more alarming.


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