Drinking in Dubai

Drinking in Dubai at Fibber Magee's Dubai Pub

Living in the Western world, we sometimes take for granted our freedom to imbibe. On my recent trip to Dubai, one of the least conservative of the Arab countries, beer wasn’t so readily available and due to its limited supply, the drink brewed on many foreigners’ minds.


While most hotels and resorts have licenses to serve up an ale (and apparently sanctioned to operate with repugnance, charging upwards of ten bucks a pint), I couldn’t find a drink at Dubai’s independently operated restaurants. So I searched the city for a pub, but most of the people I had met were unaware of any watering holes. Those who knew, pointed me toward the city’s oldest pub, Fibber Magee’s.


“How old is Fibber MaGee’s?” I asked my guide, realizing that we were near the cradle of civilization and recognizing that beer-drinking was one of the earliest forms of entertainment. If Europe had pubs that were hundreds of years old, could we possibly be talking millenniums-old?


“Seventeen years old,” she told me.


Between Sheikh Zayed Road and the Satwa area, sitting behind the Zoom Market, in the Financial District (which are about the best directions I can give, since naming streets is a new phenomenon in Dubai), is Fibber Magee’s.


Drinking in Dubai at Fibber Magee's Dubai Pub


Inside, a dozen expats gathered near the door to play dominoes, to fill the pub with raucous laughter, and to hammer their pint glasses together with enough force to wet their dominoes. Around the perimeter, quieter patrons sat on unmatched chairs beneath old black and white photographs of Ireland.


I walked over to the bar, where rugby trophies and jerseys hung above the liquor bottles and about a dozen beer taps lined the counter, dispensing everything from Guinness to Kilkenny. An old man sat at the end of the bar, near the hallway that was lined with old Guinness advertisements.


“Have you been coming here for a long time?” I asked him.


“Ten years,” he said, downing his pint. “It never changes.”


But one of the Filipino busgirls interrupted. “We have this new bar.” She tapped the shellacked surface. “The bar counter has changed.”


As she spoke, one of the domino-playing, drunken expats walked from the bathroom, and instead of crossing in front of the bar, as you do, he walked behind it, banging into the three Filipino bartenders who seemed indifferent to his oafishness.


“That group will know more about Fibber’s,” the old man said, pointing toward the entrance.


I walked over to the domino players and the crowd that had formed around them just to learn a little bit more about what Fibber’s and beer drinking in Dubai was like back in the 1990s.


“Don’t tell him about the specials,” the man who had walked behind the bar shouted when I finally convinced “Just Bill” to tell me about the pub that he had been frequenting for seventeen years. “People will start coming here.”


“They’ve got the best staff,” Just Bill said, ignoring his friend. “Everyone knows everybody.”


“Tell him about the Moose Dance,” one of the other expats shouted.


Just Bill exploded into laughter as did his domino-playing friends. “We can’t talk about the Moose Dance.” His hysterics lasted until he got thirsty. “Talk to him.” Just Bill pointed at the latest arrival to Fibber MaGee’s. “He’ll know more about this place.”


This next local, who refused to give his name, seemingly suspicious of anyone prying into the affairs of drinkers in Dubai, said “As far as old school drinking institutions, this is the only one that kept going.”


I left this secret fraternity of men and women and returned to the quieter end of the bar, where my guide sipped on her Guinness.


“Do you come here often?” I asked her, recognizing the triteness of my line, but happy that she was less in tuned to American cliches. “Or do you usually drink at home since drinks out are so expensive?”


“I do not have a license to drink at home,” she said. “I applied, but my landlord would not approve.”


The application, which I got a hold of the next day, was sheathed in a sleek black pamphlet that entices applicants interested in drinking in Dubai with the word “Easy” on the cover as well as being decorated with the phrase, “The simple way to obtain or renew your liquor licence [sic].” It was instituted when the Dubai Control of Alcoholic Drink Law passed in 1972. Besides getting your landlord to approve it, you also need your employer’s permission, be a non-Muslim, and fork up the $50 application fee.


Astutely or mockingly, applicants with queries can ring 800-CHEERS.


Drinking in Dubai Application


Drinking in Dubai Before Fibber Magee’s


I figured that beer drinking in Dubai had to predate Fibber Magee’s and the 1972 legislation, but nobody else seemed to know much about booze in the days of pre-oil Dubai, when the UAE’s population was below one million people and the more modest citizens had lived in palm leaf homes surrounded by nothing but desert.


Then, on my last full day in the city, while I was attending a lecture on the life and culture of the Emiratis, I met a tall, distinguished Dutch man, Kees de Groot, who had returned to Dubai for the first time since he had visited back in 1968, when he had worked for the Shell Oil Company.


“What was it like back then?” I asked him, figuring he would provide the Western lens for this lecture on the UAE’s history and culture.


“It was extremely primitive,” he said. “There was only one store you could get beer. The Dubai Cold Store.”


It’s funny how of all the things that crossed his mind as we sat surrounded by a traditional meal, clutching little cups of Arabica coffee, talking about the role of abayas in a Muslim’s life, and delving deep into the recent evolution of the Emirates, beer was the first thing to come to mind.


“I remember one of the heads of the operation,” de Groot continued. “He was like Lawrence of Arabia, but with a Land Rover, and he would come to the camp and bring us beer. There were no roads back then and when we would drive, it was through sand and creeks just to stock up on beer. They had Danish beer and Dutch beer then.”


He paused for reflection, that nostalgic glow foamed up in his eyes.




Posted on by Noah Lederman in Middle East, Somewhere

4 Responses to Drinking in Dubai

  1. Maryanne Marshall

    I found this very interesting also the site with all the hotels, especially since a friend of mine’s sister spent a few years working in Dubai

  2. Sam

    Ben franklin said……..” beer is proof that there is a god.”

    • Noah Lederman

      Good to know. It can cost one Benjamin Franklin to enjoy a few of those beers in Dubai.

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