The questions spill out almost as soon as the car doors close. Was it crowded? How was the selection? And what about the prices?
The taxi driver, who goes by Shaj, then peers into the rearview mirror and politely asks to see my receipt. I pass it forward, and he scans it up and down as we sway through traffic.
Shaj picks me up down a side street in the fringes of Doha, inside the razor-wire-topped walls of the Qatar Distribution Company. The QDC, as it is widely known, is the sole importer and distributor of alcohol in Qatar, a Muslim country where the sale and consumption of booze is heavily regulated. Cocktails, wine and beer are served at a smattering of luxury hotels, but the QDC’s two branches are the only places that sell alcohol for home consumption.
“It’s probably one of the happiest places in Doha,” says Rachel Harris, who is originally from Australia but has lived in Qatar for 15 years.
The QDC has stood for years as a colourful example of a broader, delicate dance within Qatari society that predated the World Cup: the country’s effort to balance its conservative values – including, in this case, a religion that forbids alcohol consumption – with its desire to open itself to the world. That line between tradition and accommodation rarely seems fixed in place.
“Everyone is welcome to come to Qatar,” Hassan al-Thawadi, the head of the World Cup’s local organising committee, said in an interview during the long run up to the tournament. “What we ask is that when people come, just to respect that we’re a relatively conservative nation.”
For international residents looking for a taste of home, then, the QDC offers a boozy lifeline. Access to the store is granted through a state-run application process. The privilege was extended in recent weeks to teams, sponsors and news media organisations here for the World Cup. (Fans were not allowed to apply.)
On a visit one morning, three employees of the US national soccer team are pushing around three shopping carts piled high with bottles and cases of beer – and wondering aloud if they should grab a fourth.
They are presented with an international selection of drink options: aperitifs from France, sake from Japan, wines from Chile and Australia, beers from Mexico, Brazil and the Philippines. There is even a separate room stuffed with freezers and devoted entirely to pork products, which are otherwise unavailable in restaurants and grocery stores around the country: frozen pepperoni pizzas and shrink-wrapped pork chops, cans of Spam and cocktail wieners, overstuffed packs of bacon. A sign above the door is both a label and a warning: “Pork Shop”, it reads, “For non-Muslims”.
Signs around the building announce special deals tied to the World Cup. Artificial stadium crowd noise filters out through speakers near the entrance. A German journalist in loafers examines a bottle of Italian wine.
But the US Soccer staff members have to be sensible. Each individual permit holder is granted a monthly quota of 2,000 Qatari riyals, about €520. And the Americans are on what amounted to a supply mission: they need enough alcohol not only for their colleagues travelling with the team but also to meet the needs of the large group of players’ family and friends. That group, one of the staff members says, has been peppering them with desperate requests. Even with multiple permits, the Americans are hunting for bargains.
“This isn’t, like, sipping wine,” one of the US team staff members says. “This is survival wine.”
It soon becomes clear, though, that the happiest place in Doha (for those inclined to drink) is also one of the most exclusive.
In the car, Shaj, who is Muslim and from Sri Lanka, tells me he has never been inside the QDC despite living in Qatar for 12 years. The store’s permit requirements include a minimum salary of 3,000 Qatari riyals a month (about €780) to even apply for entry. That puts legal alcohol essentially out of reach for the hundreds of thousands of immigrant labourers who make up nearly 90 per cent of Qatar’s population; many of them make close to the minimum wage of €260 a month.
While the QDC has been hailed as an oasis for thirsty visitors, others, including Shaj, see its strict restrictions – and its limits on access – as unfair. To them, the rules are merely another example of the sort of structural inequalities that are part and parcel of daily life for them in Qatar.
Unable to access alcohol in the same way as white-collar residents and high-end visitors, he and others instead rely on a black market for it. His beverage of choice, he says, is vodka, which he buys at a considerable markup and only drinks inside the room he shares with three other workers.
“This double standard,” Shaj says, “I don’t like.”
His sentiments were echoed on a recent Friday night in Asian Town, an area of Doha populated by tens of thousands of foreign workers from countries such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The neighbourhood is only 3km from the hidden bounty of the QDC, but it feels in some ways like a universe apart.
“Muslim, Hindu, who doesn’t drink here?” said Hari, a heavy goods vehicle driver from Kathmandu, Nepal, who was headed to a World Cup fan zone after having a few glasses of whiskey at home.
Like Shaj, he asked that his full name not be revealed out of fear of running afoul of the authorities or potential employers.
“Everyone is scared to talk about it because it is forbidden here,” Hari said. After nine years in Qatar, Hari said that he has eked out enough money to purchase brand-name alcohol on the secondary market. But he knows most other workers do not have that luxury. Some in Asian Town buy amateur brews made from fermented fruit. Others turn to homemade, chemically enhanced, hard spirits.
One popular variety of local moonshine, nicknamed Sri Lanka, is sold in plastic water bottles for about €7, Hari said. It is potent and possibly dangerous: medical officials in Nepal believe that such concoctions might have resulted in the deaths of migrant workers in Qatar and elsewhere in the Gulf.
The scene in Asian Town was a far cry from the state-sanctioned bonhomie of the QDC.
Shoppers last week were weaving their carts around pyramids of stacked beer cans. A 24-pack of Budweiser was selling for 188 Qatari riyals, or roughly €50. Nearby, a bottle of Cristal Champagne was listed for about €465.
There are strict rules for people allowed inside. Aside from income restrictions, customers cannot come from member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Regular customers pay membership fees but cannot resell the alcohol or even give it to someone as a gift. And upon leaving, buyers must keep their purchases concealed until they make it home.
Overall, though, the government in recent years has been making the QDC experience more customer friendly. During the pandemic, the store has introduced perks such as online ordering and home delivery. Customers these days get text messages advertising special sales.
As the US team members shop, a QDC employee sidles over to let them know that their individual quotas have been doubled for the World Cup. That will certainly make their lives a lot easier.
They thank her and roll their jangling caravan towards the cash registers. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.