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First local beer in conservative Arab Gulf

by Kaia

In the heart of Abu Dhabi, Chad McGehee oversees the production of a unique brew at his gastro pub, marking a milestone as the first beer crafted in the traditionally conservative Arab Gulf region, where alcohol has long been considered taboo.

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As a co-founder of Craft pub, situated in the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), McGehee stands at the helm of the only licensed microbrewery in a region renowned for its arid climate and stringent alcohol regulations.

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In a bid to revamp their image and diversify their economies for a post-oil era, several Gulf petro-states have begun to relax alcohol restrictions. Entrepreneurs like McGehee are eager to capitalize on these shifts.

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Just a short drive from Abu Dhabi lies Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, where alcohol consumption is strictly limited to one licensed store accessible solely to non-Muslim foreign diplomats.

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Alcohol sales face heavy restrictions in Oman and Qatar, while Kuwait and Sharjah, one of the UAE’s emirates, maintain outright bans.

McGehee envisions Abu Dhabi as a beer destination comparable to renowned locales like Germany, New York, or San Diego, aiming to position Craft as a pivotal player in this evolving landscape.

The UAE has progressively eased alcohol laws, with Dubai abolishing a 30% alcohol tax last year and eliminating charges for permits allowing non-Muslims access to licensed stores.

In 2021, Abu Dhabi became the sole emirate permitting licensed venues to brew beer onsite, stipulating that consumption be confined to the premises.

Although Saudi Arabia recently inaugurated a store in Riyadh, speculation regarding further relaxation of alcohol laws remains uncertain, despite Minister of Tourism Ahmed al-Khateeb’s affirmation of the national ban.

McGehee’s venture, Side Hustle Brews and Spirits, introduced the UAE’s first home-branded beer in 2019, transitioning to Craft following Abu Dhabi’s brewing allowance. Craft offers an array of beers infused with local flavors such as karak tea, a regional favorite.

Embracing local ingredients sourced from markets, Craft’s offerings range from honey and dates to black tea, saffron, and cardamom.

The UAE’s population, predominantly expatriate, once confined alcohol consumption to hotel bars frequented by foreigners. However, social norms have gradually shifted, reflecting a broader liberalization trend initiated by Abu Dhabi in the early 2000s.

Alexandre Kazerouni, associate professor at France’s Ecole Normale Superieure, attributes this transformation to a desire for regional modernization and competition with neighboring countries.

With ambitions to attract nearly 40 million tourists by 2030, Abu Dhabi aims to rival Dubai’s international allure, challenging perceptions and redefining cultural norms.

For patrons like Andrew Burgess, a British expatriate, microbreweries like Craft signal a cultural evolution in the Gulf, reshaping perceptions and fostering greater understanding between East and West.

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