The underground map helps thirsty World Cup fans find alcohol in Qatar
DOHA, Qatar – The Mulberry Tavern is tucked away in a five-star hotel off a side street in Qatar’s most exclusive neighborhood. Technically, it serves a country whose religion prohibits alcohol, but its menu lists over 100 alcoholic beverages. His waiters bring $15 draft beer, $23 cocktails and $113 bottles of wine to tables adorned with the flags of the World Cup participants. And as Western music hums and kick-off draws near, she prepares.
It has not been promoted as part of the 2022 World Cup, nor does it have local pubs. In Qatar, said World Cup organizer Nasser Al Khater, “alcohol is not part of our culture”. And so, in preparing for the tournament, organizers FIFA and Qatar have walked a fine line between a host country that frowns on alcohol and a sport that devours alcohol. They will sell it at fan fests but not in stadiums. They advertise Budweiser, an official World Cup sponsor, but not alcohol as a product. Their relative silence has failed to let thousands of arriving visitors know that a few hundred hotel bars and restaurants can satiate their drinking needs.
However, behind the scenes, a map tended by an American fan does its job for them.
Ed Ball, a Seattle-based aerospace retailer, initially created his Qatar Alcohol Map as “something useful for myself.” He then shared it with beer-drinking buddies and other US soccer supporters. And over time it spread. It’s been viewed over 320,000 times over several months, Ball told Emox News, and that number is growing by thousands every day. Fans from England and Wales use it. Fans from Mexico and South America use it. It is also used by people working on the tournament in official capacities.
None of these officials will advertise it because they remain aware of their hosts’ sensitivities. The New York Times reported on Monday that Qatar’s royal family had called for beer tents to be moved to less visible locations outside of stadiums. Locals are concerned that an influx of inebriated fans could overwhelm a very intoxicated city.
But at the Mulberry and the other 195 bars, restaurants and clubs on Ball’s list, lines will grow and alcohol will flow – and no one knows if it will be enough to serve the 1 million or so diners awaiting the World Cup.
From connoisseur to curator
Islam’s disapproval of alcohol and Qatari laws criminalizing public consumption sparked fears among Western fans that the 2022 World Cup would be a dry one. Qatari law also prohibits the import of alcohol. Grocery stores are not allowed to sell it. There is only a single distribution hub, the blandly named Qatar Distribution Company (QDC) that requires a permit, Qatari citizenship, employer permission, social status and braving long lines.
In other words, it’s not for foreign fans – so they wondered if they could drink at all. Ball, a self-proclaimed craft beer “connoisseur,” was one of them. And then he began his research.
He quickly realized that the fears, fueled in part by incredulous tabloids, were exaggerated. Qatari authorities issue alcohol licenses to hotels – which generally act as a safe haven from Qatar’s most conservative laws. They are the place where people have premarital sex and mostly for drinking.
However, Ball could not find an all-encompassing list of them. So he started taking some notes earlier this year after he and his wife confirmed their trip to Qatar. He realized that a Google map, which he uses at work to visualize his network of colleagues and clients, could be useful.
What he originally built was very incomplete, with about a dozen hotels and a few facilities. Then some members of US soccer’s largest support group, the American Outlaws, began chiming in with recommendations.
These friends shared it with their friends. Twenty views a day turned into 50, then 100. Ball began emailing hotels, pubs and restaurants with direct questions about their alcohol offerings. He added happy hour notes, contact information, and reviews to many of them. He added nearby stadiums and subway stations for convenience.
He estimates he spent more than 100 hours curating it. He also turned it into a spreadsheet. He didn’t aggressively promote it — that Twitter account He only has 79 followers – and he doesn’t know exactly how it spread internationally. But he’s now getting messages from people all over the world thanking him. He doesn’t know how many of the 320,000 viewers are repeat users, but it’s clear thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of fans will be pointing it out when they come to Doha this month.
A complicated clash of cultures
But it is also clear that the World Cup in Qatar will be anything but a drinkers’ paradise. Ball hopes to bounce to several of the bars that have responded to his bet, but worries they may overflow. He worries that instead of sitting back and relaxing and watching football, he’ll be standing shoulder to shoulder without a cellphone service.
He also asked himself a question as he got ready for departure: “Are the prices as bad as everyone says?”
In short, the answer is yes. The hotels that house the pubs and restaurants are mostly upmarket. There’s also a so-called “sin tax” – a 100 percent tax on alcohol imports – that makes Qatar the most expensive place in the world to buy beer. The prices are not uniformly absurd. Wine is not $113 everywhere. An artificial island brimming with luxury, The Pearl is notoriously and uniquely exorbitant. But the average cost of a beer in Qatar in 2021 was $11.26, according to Expensivity’s World Beer Index.
It’s unclear how expensive the booze will be at the FIFA-controlled Fan Fests, the largest of which organizers say will have a capacity of 40,000 and will be open from 10am to 2am. The official festivals are an attempt to turn a booming but often boring city into a hip one for a month. They offer live music and other entertainment, as well as large screens for gaming.
During the games themselves, beer will be sold on the stadium grounds, but not in the arena. Concessions in concourses only sell Budweiser Zero, the official sponsor’s non-alcoholic product. And fans who clearly have had too much alcohol are reportedly taken to sobering zones and held there to prevent disruption.
It’s all a complicated clash of cultures and governing bodies. Ball knew many fans were confused by this. That’s why he created his map not as a means of circumventing laws, but as a resource that would help him – and now many others – to revel “within the limits of legal drinking in Qatar”.