Abu Dhabi: Although restaurants, bars, and even cafes at all hotels offer alcohol to anyone wishing to drink with no restrictions other than age, the law in the UAE requires a licence for purchasing or consuming alcohol.
Non-Muslims need to have a licence to buy alcohol and also to drink it. Those not willing to get a licence and are content to have drink at hotels are not exempted from needing a liquor licence.
Not knowing the law is not an excuse, and there is little protection if one gets in trouble.
A manager in an international construction company, experienced this first hand after a few drinks in a hotel.
"I had a few drinks with a friend at a bar in a well- known hotel on a Friday afternoon. After paying the bill, I was entering the restroom when I saw a lady fixing her make up. I immediately realised that I was going into the ladies restroom. I apologised and quickly changed directions," Smith (a fake name to protect confidentiality) told Gulf News. "Repeated apologies to the security guard were of no use. He insisted on calling the police," he added.
The hotel however reported that the reason they called the police was that a drunken Smith got into a physical fight with the security guard.
"I was arrested, handcuffed and taken to the Mena [port] police station, and transferred to Khalidiya police station after almost six hours," said Smith.
"For hours I had no idea what the charges were. The lack of communication complicated the situation and made it scary. I knew I didn't do anything to deserve this," he added.
"It was then explained to me that my charge was for drinking without a licence — not the mishap at the bathroom. I was so surprised. If drinking is not authorised without a licence, then why do hotels serve alcohol without asking for one?" he added.
Smith was taken to Al Wathba prison where he was jailed for a week until he appeared in front of a judge. When the case was heard in court, Smith was found guilty for drinking without a licence. He was fined Dh500 in addition to the week he had served in jail.
Gulf News sought a legal opinion.
"The law allows non-Muslims to drink and buy alcohol with a permit. If Smith had a liquor licence, he wouldn't have been jailed," said Faiza Mousa, Emirati lawyer.
"Although the UAE is not allowing Muslim residents to drink, non-Muslims residents can buy and consume alcohol, but they have to simply do it in accordance with the law, by getting a licence," she added.
Dr Shaker Maatouq, an Emirati lawyer, said: "Liquor licences are issued only to non-Muslim persons whether they are UAE residents or tourists. Hotels are required to get a licence to offer alcohol but they are not required to ask their customers to provide a liquor licence with their order for an alcoholic drink," he added.
Following the letter of the law means that no one, even non-Muslim visitors, may purchase or drink alcohol without a licence.
Gulf News asked several hotels whether they are required by law to request licences before serving alcohol. "We are not obligated to ask for an alcohol licence. We just check ID to ensure that all guests at nightclubs are of legal age ," said a manager at a five-star hotel, who asked to remain anonymous.
L.W, 28, was surprised to know about this law.
"I wasn't aware of this law and I believe the information about it is poor. I think this is a grey area, I bought a bottle of wine yesterday and no one at the shop asked for a permit yet I must have it," Kevin Watson, 53, British said.
"Ignorance of the law is not an excuse," an official from the police who asked not to be named told Gulf News. "People need to fully inform themselves of the laws and customs of the countries they choose to visit or reside in," he said.