Tourists can now buy alcohol in Dubai – but only if they have a foreign passport. Why? Because UAE (United Arab Emirates) residents are often Muslims, and Muslims aren’t permitted to drink alcohol. If you bring your non-UAE passport to prove you aren’t a resident, you can buy alcohol in Dubai. In the past, wine, beer and hard liquor was only sold to tourists in licensed restaurants, but the UAE has changed its laws. My experience buying wine was unsettling, even a little scary, but I emerged from the shuttered, clandestine liquor store in rosy spirits!
Below are three quick steps for tourists who want to buy bottles of wine or other types of liquor in Dubai. The most important tip is to take your passport. Another tip is to remember that alcohol interferes with sleep. If you recently arrived in Dubai read How to Sleep When You’re Jet Lagged. My third tip is that if you’re a woman traveling solo in the UAE, you may face disapproval (read my story about buying alcohol from a disapproving Muslim man at an MMI liquor store in Dubai). And finally, be prepared to hand over your passport for to be inspected at the liquor store.
Iit wasn’t just buying alcohol that was awkward and uncomfortable for me as a solo female traveler. I felt unwelcome in most shops, restaurants, and hotels in Dubai. It seems that many Muslim men aren’t at their best when interacting with Western women — especially if they’re not used to female tourists. I didn’t need my passport to buy nuts and dates at the shop around the corner from my hotel, but I wished I had a male companion to ease the tension.
Back to needing a passport to buy alcohol in Dubai: Until recently, tourists with non-UAE passports could order alcohol in restaurants but couldn’t buy bottles of wine or liquor in stores. That has changed. When I was in the United Arab Emirates I bought a bottle of merlot (red wine) at a MMI store near the Dubai Mall. MMI stands for “Maritime & Mercantile International” — which I never would’ve guessed meant “liquor store.”
3 Steps for Buying Alcohol for Tourists in Dubai
- Look up MMI or liquor stores on a Dubai or Abu Dhabi map. I use the MapsMe app and Google Maps to find an MMI store near my hotel.
- Take your passport. You’ll need it to prove you’re not a UAE citizen or Muslim to purchase alcohol in Dubai.
- Take a cloth bag. It’s getting more difficult to get plastic bags all over the world, which is good. But if the UAE liquor store doesn’t sell bags, you’ll end up carrying a bottle of liquor on the streets of Dubai or Abu Dhabi. Not good.
Be careful NOT to consume alcohol in public! In the UAE it is a punishable offense to drink wine or any type of liquor in public. The law enforces in the United Arab Emirates are very strict about this. If you have a glass of wine or beer in your hotel room, make sure you don’t appear to be under the influence of alcohol in public.
This may seem strict if you’re from Europe, Nepal, Hong Kong or other countries that allow the public consumption of liquor. But if you’re from Canada like me, you’re used to not being able to drink in public.
You may also want to put your detective hat on when you’re looking for a liquor or MMI store in Dubai. The store I went to was called “Maritime & Mercantile International” and was completely concealed with dark windows and doors. There was a small sign on the door, with a notice that Muslims and citizens of the United Arab Emirates were forbidden to enter.
I almost didn’t enter the store when I saw the words “Maritime & Mercantile International” because I thought I was looking for an MMI liquor store. Mercantile means “relating to trade or commerce” and I thought the building was for sailors or captains shopping for boat stuff. I took a chance, went in, and discovered a liquor store just like the ones in Canada and America.
When you’re looking for a liquor store in Dubai or Abu Dhabi, don’t be fooled by outer appearances. Go beneath the surface. Open doors, peek around corners, lift the carpets. That’s where the good stuff is – and it’s also how travel transforms you.
My Experience Buying Wine in the UAE
The MMI store I found near the Dubai Mall is on the backside of a strip mall. It’s not exactly the alley…but it’s close. It’s between two banking-related Dubai Metro stops. No tourists, but lots of Western and European ex-pat bankers, administrators, techies, etc.
The store clerk was about 60 years old. I assume he was a Muslim man who disapproved of alcohol but he could’ve just been disapproving of me. I was traveling in the UAE alone — a solo female tourist — and I was warmly and eagerly welcomed by almost two men. The store clerk had lots to disapprove of: a woman, traveling alone, buying wine, and supporting the alcohol industry. That guy was not a happy Muslim.
He asked what I wanted. I said I’m a Canadian tourist who would like to buy a bottle of wine. He stared at me. I added that I’m not Muslim, and I’m not a UAE citizen.
The clerk asked for my passport. I handed it over; he inspected it for a few minutes. Giving it back, he waved me toward the shelves and disappeared into the back area behind the cash register.
The liquor store looked exactly like any liquor store in Canada or America. It was weird because it was so nondescript and almost secretive on the outside! Yet as soon as you walk in you hear the “beep beep beep” of the store alarm. The store clerk appears from the room behind the cash register. You see shelves of fine and table wines, hard liquors, after dinner drinks, dessert wines, beer and ciders. There are even coolers with white wine and chilled beer. Mecca (for some).
Even though the store clerk disappeared into the room behind the cash register I could feel his scowling, dark, disapproving stare as I approached the rows of red wine. I grabbed the first bottle I saw with a screw top lid (I dislike hunting for a cork screw when I’m on vacation; unlike my husband, I don’t carry one in my baggage. He’s the tool guy).
The store clerk reappeared as I approached the cash register. He asked for my passport again, and started typing my information into the computer.
Three people entered the store — yay, more tourists who want to buy wine in Dubai! A wave of relief overcame me. I didn’t think anything bad would happen to me in that UAE liquor store, but I didn’t feel comfortable or even safe. I felt edgy and almost threatened.
“How do we buy alcohol in the UAE?” the first woman asked me.
I balked, somehow knowing the liquor store clerk would not be happy if I spoke up. Indeed, he lashed out at her.
“Don’t talk to her!” he said. “She does not know about buying alcohol! Talk to me!”
The tourist immediately apologized. Smart girl. She said they had been told different things about buying alcohol in Dubai, and she just wanted to know how I managed to buy a bottle of wine. I can’t remember what they talked about next, but they went back and forth for a bit. I was in shock, and worried because he still had my passport. Plus I was in the middle of a purchase! I wanted to get out of there, not be stuck in the middle of their alcohol-Muslim debate.
“Could I finish buying my transaction, please?” They all agreed; the clerk continued to enter my passport information.
“I can’t tell you how to buy alcohol in the UAE but I can share my experience,” I said to the woman. “Tourists are allowed to talk to each other, and I can tell you what happened to me here.” I briefly told her what I knew about liquor stores, tourists with non-UAE passports, and buying alcohol. I also said he still has my passport and is entering my information.
She and her friends started browsing the shelves. The store clerk eventually gave me back my passport, wrapped my wine in newspaper, and broodily sent me on my way. I buried the bottle deep in the bottom of my backpack, hoping I didn’t get caught with it in Dubai somewhere.
When I got back to my hotel room I saw the sign posted on the inside of my door: “No liquor allowed in this hotel.” Oops. Better drink up. Good thing my wine bottle has a screw top.
A few days later I smuggled the empty wine bottle out of the hotel after wiping off all my finger prints. I deposited it in a trash can a few blocks away. I burned the store receipt, and prayed my flight on Emirates Airlines and the check-in at the Dubai airport would be uneventful. What if they don’t let me board the plane? I already had that experience in Nepal, and didn’t want to repeat it in the United Arab Emirates!
It was. I don’t know if my passport was flagged or I was tagged, but I had no problem leaving the UAE. Emirates Airlines may or may not serve alcohol on its flights — I didn’t bother to ask! They quickly and efficiently flew me to Hong Kong, which was like going home…even though it was my first time in Asia.
Are you wishing you could share your bottle of wine or scotch with a fellow traveler? It’s easier than you think! Read 7 Easy Ways to Make Friends When You’re Traveling Solo.
Have you bought wine or other alcohol at a liquor store in Dubai or Abu Dhabi? Feel free to share your UAE story and experiences here. And if you have updated information on tourists buying liquor in the UAE or another Muslim country, please comment below. We need all the tips and tools we can get :-)
To learn more about the alcohol laws and liquor stores in the United Arab Emirates, read Dubai tourists can now buy alcohol from shops on the UK’s Independent online newspaper.
In rosy spirits,