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Dubai makes U-turn on cooking with alcohol ban

By Daniela Deane for CNN
Emirati men walk past foreigners drinking beer at the 2009 Horse Racing Dubai World Cup. Some 85 percent of Dubai's population are foreigners.
Emirati men walk past foreigners drinking beer at the 2009 Horse Racing Dubai World Cup. Some 85 percent of Dubai's population are foreigners.
  • Dubai officials calling meeting to clarify regulations
  • Stricter alcohol cooking rules may be brought in
  • Back-and-forth on ban may be result of increased complaints
  • Dubai demographics strikingly unique with 85 percent foreigners

(CNN) -- Can you serve coq au vin made with red wine in Dubai anymore? Nobody's completely sure.

Confusion reigns in the upscale restaurant kitchens of the Gulf sheikdom after a circular was sent out by Dubai officials earlier this week stating that the use of alcohol in cooking was "strictly prohibited" since it violated the Muslim country's strict alcohol rules.

Arabian Business, quoting the head of food inspection for Dubai, reported that hotels had one month to stop using alcohol in food preparation or face fines ranging from $545 to $5,445 (AED 2,000 to AED 20,000), even rising to as much as $136,000 (AED 500,000) for serious repeat offenders.

But just as the frost was starting to develop on the foie gras (which can come marinated in wine), Dubai authorities did an apparent U-turn, with a senior official saying there had been a "misunderstanding" of the rules -- and that there was no ban.

For them, alcohol is a 100 percent no-no, even if it's boiled.
--Uwe Micheel, Dubai executive chef

Chefs and hotels have now been told that the Dubai municipality will call a meeting soon to clarify the alcohol guidelines, Uwe Micheel, president of the Emirates Culinary Guild and director of kitchens at the Radisson Blu Dubai Creek, told CNN.

Micheel told CNN he thought stricter rules will be brought in, but that there will be no ban.

"I expect the change will be that all the dishes prepared with alcohol will have to be on a separate menu," the German executive chef said, so that it's easier for Muslims to identify which dishes contain alcohol. He said he also expected stricter guidelines on storage of food prepared with alcohol and perhaps utensils used to eat food prepared with alcohol.

At the moment, dishes that contain alcohol can be sold in the city's restaurants if they are clearly marked on the menu. The drink must be stored and the food prepared separately.

Alcohol is available to drink at licensed restaurants and bars, which are usually found in international hotels, although Muslims are not legally allowed to drink.

Micheel, who oversees 14 restaurants, said the Dubai authorities were generally supportive of the emirate's hospitality industry and were not "here to make life difficult for us." But he said he thought more complaints were coming into them from local Muslims. He added that not all Dubai restaurants were complying with the current regulations.

Dubai, not that long ago a sleepy pearling village, has unique demographics. A massive 85 percent of the people there come from another country, vastly dwarfing the conservative local Emirati population.

And that unusual population divide can cause culture clashes, like the present confusion surrounding a possible alcohol cooking ban or the recent case of the British couple appealing a one-month jail sentence for kissing and drinking in public.

Read about how a kiss highlighted Dubai's culture clash

"For them [Muslims], alcohol is a 100 percent no-no, even if it's boiled," Micheel said. "And that has to be respected. We are living in a Muslim country."

Micheel said he thinks the ban confusion happened because authorities have received "more complaints" from locals. Arabian Business quoted the director of the emirate's food control department as saying the reason for the clampdown under the existing 2003 law was that a number of complaints had come from locals.

Dubai's foreign population has swelled in recent years as expatriates flocked to the booming emirate, attracted by a high standard of living, jobs, no taxes, and year-round sunshine. The population changes have meant that local Emiratis are vastly outnumbered, raising concerns among them that the lightning-speed modernization threatens their deeply conservative social and religious identity.

The two populations couldn't be more different.

The tiny local Emirati population dress in floor-length robes, shun alcohol, pray five times a day, and are rooted in conservative Islam. Many of the country's Western expatriates and tourists, however, are drawn to the desert sheikdom-by-the-sea's relaxed beach lifestyle.

Expatriates who live in Dubai said authorities are more sensitive to these types of culture clashes than in the past.

"More people are misbehaving," said Micheel, who's been working in Dubai for 17 years, arriving when the sheikdom was just a "small village."

"There are more than 200 different nationalities living here," he said. "If you do not respect each other's rules and cultures, there will be clashes."

"In the past, you would not have seen people in very casual summer clothes here," he said. "Now you do. We are guests in this country. We must behave as guests."

Heiki Moeckel, a culture consultant with Abu Dhabi-based Embrace Arabia, a consultancy group that advises both foreign and Emirati clients on how to bridge the cultural divide, told CNN some expatriates need to learn more respect for their host country.

"It's very silly to believe that if you're coming from country x, y and z, you're going to create a copy of that country when you come to the United Arab Emirates," she said. "Why don't you just stay home if you need everything from home?"