Skip to main content
opinion

A staff member pours a beer at a fan zone ahead of the FIFA World Cup, in Doha, Qatar Nov. 19, 2022.Petr David Josek/The Associated Press

Nobody back home wants to hear your soccer stories. They all have TVs.

They’ve accepted that protests over human rights have reached their conclusion (the human rights lost). So they don’t bother asking.

What they want to know about is booze. Where do you get it? Is it as hard as they say? How much is it? Should I book you into rehab right after you get home, or do you want to have one last Christmas first?

It is hard to get. It is ridiculously expensive – the most expensive booze in the world. Think $15 for a beer in a bar, and twice that for a mixed drink.

The problem isn’t the price. It’s that the cumulative effect of alcohol makes people immune to pricing. The first one hurts, but the sixth is easy.

As one louche comrade here put it, “After a while, you’re not even looking at the bill. You’re just tapping your card.”

Podcast: Canada’s 1-0 loss to Belgium, a missed penalty by Davies and the glory of shock upsets

The beginner’s guide to soccer chants

There’s only one way around this swindle. It’s to obtain a private liquor licence through the Qatar Distribution Company.

That’s simple. You need permanent residency, a stamped letter from your employer, a minimum salary, proof that you are non-Muslim and then you wait for a few months. Or many months. Or forever. It’s not clear.

The other way to get a licence is to be in Qatar covering the World Cup. The QDC has set up expedited, temporary permits designed to keep the Huns of the international media out of the bars and away from nice people.

I suppose the thinking was that visiting sports writers can’t drink and complain at the same time.

The Qatari regime can’t have met many sports writers. That’s all they do. They drink and complain. Combine the two things, and it’s like a superpower. Gather them in large groups to do it together, and they might take down governments through the cumulative force of their whining. It’s mostly about bus schedules and the WiFi, but still.

So you fill out your online form. After a few days, you are e-mailed your permit, along with a monthly spending limit – 4,000 Qatari riyals, or about $1,500.

Not for the first time, it occurs to you that your hosts have a very low opinion of you.

You fill your boss in on all of this. It’s important work you’re doing. Sociological research, even. You might be in line for a grant.

Your boss tells you that if you try claiming that ‘Grolsch’ is what they call Uber in the Middle East, your expense report is being denied in toto.

In order to go to the only liquor store in the entirety of Qatar, you head out into the desert one morning. Your driver gives you The Look when you get in the car. After a week in Qatar, you’re getting used to The Look. It’s mild disgust, pity and tolerance, mixed in varying amounts according to the person delivering it. The Look says, ‘Sad, decadent Westerner, how small your life must be’.

You can’t just to go to the Qatari beer store. You have to make an appointment, within a 15-minute window.

The store is out in the suburbs, about 45 minutes from downtown. It’s tucked anonymously into a bleached-out section of low sprawl.

This country is divided into two sections. About 15 per cent of the population are native Qataris, who reap all the benefits of the gas boom. Then there’s everyone else. You have interacted with hundreds of people already, and it is possible, verging on likely, that you have not yet spoken to a Qatari.

If every house on the block is a gated compound, if it has grass, or if there are five Land Cruisers parked under sun shields in front of it, then you are in a Qatari neighbourhood.

This is not a Qatari neighbourhood.

The place you’re going to is surrounded by eight-foot walls and (unusually, in a country that has nearly zero property crime) razor wire.

You pass a guard to get in to the inner courtyard. You wait in your car for your turn. It’s too hot to linger outside.

You check in with a code and grab a cart. You wind your way into the store – a windowless box inside a larger structure. It’s a lot like any other upscale liquor store anywhere else.

The prices are more reasonable, but not low by Canada’s already not-low standard. A box of premium beer will put you back $100. There seems to be a tax on the more intoxicating liquors. You can get a decent bottle of Côtes du Rhône for $20, but you can’t get good (i.e. Polish) vodka for under $200.

At 10 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, the place is full of people. English is the only language being spoken.

We are here to buy a few post-workday pops. Everyone else is shopping like they are bootleggers. Home Depot-style trolleys filled to brimming with hard liquor. Thousands of dollars worth of hooch.

No one is walking up to the cash with a couple of bottles for tonight’s dinner party. Under Qatari law, you’re allowed to drink this inside your home, but you’re forbidden from sharing. While I try to be respectful as a guest, the duty of charity travels over all borders.

You flash your passport, pay your bill, get an updated monthly spending limit and leave.

You’ve read a few stories about this place. There is a local rumour that it operates on its own power grid, lest anything about it touch the lives of its God-fearing neighbours. You half-expect local scamps to be pelting you with rocks as you leave, but no one on the street bothers to look. That said, you hustle the stuff into your rented house like you’re carrying a corpse.

Surveying your haul, you can’t help but feel a teensy bit grubby. People would probably pay good money to dry out in the desert, and here you are, sneaking around town, circumventing local custom.

But it’s not the booze. Or not only that. It is a potent Irish-ism that no man tell you what to do on your own patch. Not everyone here has the luxury of bending a rule, even one as inconsequential as this. It seems contingent that when the opportunity to do so presents itself, one should take it.