Food & Drink

How Do You Get a Drink in Countries Where Alcohol Is Illegal?

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From 1920 to 1933 the United States dabbled in alcohol prohibition (Mississippi actually kept dabbling until 1966) and it didn’t go great. Americans continued to drink in hidden speakeasies, and the corruption and crime that allowed them to continue drinking demonstrated how ineffective the 18th Amendment was in a country whose founders spent their free time distilling whiskey and collecting wine. And so, 13 years after it was passed, Prohibition was repealed on the votes of 38 of the 48 states at the time (South Carolina, North Carolina. Georgia, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Oklahoma did not vote to repeal it). Other countries around the world, though, continue to prohibit alcohol. And unlike the American experiment, the laws are strictly enforced, and finding a drink isn’t as easy as wandering into a speakeasy.

Where Is Alcohol Banned

All the countries with complete bans on alcohol (Libya, Kuwait, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen) are majority Muslim. Because it is banned in the Quran, many Muslim countries tend to take a dim view of drinking even if they don’t ban it outright for everyone. Some, like Brunei or the Maldives, allow non-Muslims to drink, but even in a place like the United Arab Emirates, which, thanks to the city of Dubai, is a major international tourist destination, you need a license to drink regardless of your religion. In order to qualify for the drinking license, you need to make at least $9,000 a year, and, according to all the information put out by the government, you also need to be a UAE resident. So, while tourists might have a cocktail or two in one of Dubai’s upscale hotels or clubs, it’s unclear if they could be punished for doing so. Multiple anecdotal accounts from people who have visited suggest that tourists are rarely punished for drinking without a license, but, should you be that rare case that gets punished, you might not have any protection from the six-month prison sentence that can come with an illegal drinking charge. We asked the two major alcohol retailers in the country, which also help people through the alcohol licensing process, whether tourists can actually get alcohol licenses and what the process involves. We didn’t receive a response.

What Happens If You Get Caught Drinking Where It’s Illegal

While six months in jail for having an unregistered glass of wine sounds bad, it could be worse. In Saudi Arabia alcohol related crimes (possession, consumption and distribution) are regularly cited as the second most commonly charged crimes in the entire country. And don’t think you’re getting off the hook just because you are a foreigner. In 2015, 57-year-old Australian grandfather Peter Mutty served six months in jail and received 28 lashes for having two cases of homemade beer and two boxes of homemade wine in his car. And that same year, the Saudi government sentenced a prolific Scottish bootlegger named Gordon Malloch to three years and 480 lashes.

How Do You Actually Get a Drink?

Harsh punishments are enforced regularly enough in countries where alcohol is banned that drinking has been driven entirely underground. According to an account Malloch gave to the National Geographic Channel, he brought whiskey and gin into Saudi Arabia inside fake generators and drove it out into the middle of the desert where people came to party. We contacted an American who has spent a significant amount of time working in a number of countries with alcohol bans and he said that, “Even in places where it’s illegal, borders are porous enough that a certain quantity [of alcohol] will find its way in.” That’s how you get Johnnie Walker selling in Libya at a 500 percent markup. If you aren’t going full black market, the other main option for sourcing alcohol isn’t much safer. The American went on, “If you want to enjoy things fermented locally, you need to make a local friend.” He said most drinking happens in people’s homes and involves homemade wine or spirits. He’s experienced this type of extremely local drinking in both Libya and Iran. But he cautioned against drinking those homemade spirits even if you have the opportunity because amateur distilling operations are dangerous. He pointed to Libya, where bad moonshine left almost a dozen people seriously ill in January. Five years ago, tainted homemade alcohol killed 60 and sent another 1,000 to the hospital.

Our American source did mention that he’s seen “certain” high-end hotels in Yemen serving drinks to people they believe are foreigners, but that’s hardly a reliable option. And you’d have to ask yourself if it’s worth the risk of trying to find out if your hotel is one of those “certain” establishments.

All in all, if you’re headed somewhere that bans alcohol, you’re better off sticking to juice and tea—and then ordering a Bloody Mary the second your airplane flies into international airspace.