There are few more effective ways to make yourself feel like a raging alcoholic than by walking around a quiet suburb in an Islamic city asking locals where you can find the alcohol license office. As I did exactly that, I found myself encountering so many looks of horror, disgust and confusion, that I seriously began to question the wisdom of my mission. Nevertheless, I had made it all the way to Ruwi – a major suburb of Muscat – and I was determined to plough on and to get my alcohol license, despite the rather judgemental attitude of the locals.
I was in Ruwi to go through a process that is a right of passage for most expats. I was there to apply for a special permit that would allow me to purchase alcohol in Oman. At this point, let me step back and explain the situation in a little more detail. Unlike some of the more conservative gulf states, drinking alcohol is legal in Oman. If I am honest, I would probably admit that were this not the case, I might not have chosen to re-locate to Oman – a year without alcohol would probably send me mildly peculiar. However, getting a drink is not as simple as dropping by the local convenience store to pick up a six pack. Away from major hotels and restaurants, it is impossible to buy alcohol without a license. And, then, you can only get it at specialist stores. Sadly, the process of acquiring said license, is steeped in complexities and contradictions that would not look out of place in a Franz Kafka novel.
The first aspect of this is actually finding the office that issues the licenses – this was why I found myself wandering around Ruwi in a state of mild disorientation. The aforementioned office is situated in a small cabin at the side of the police station on an unheralded backstreet. There are no signs to direct you there and there is not even a sign above the door when you eventually arrive. Neither are there any instructions online or in any guidebooks about Oman. Add to this the fact that most sober Omanis would have no idea about the place's existence let alone its location, and you get quite a conundrum. Most expats manage to find their way there through a combination of word of mouth and sheer blind luck – that was how I managed it at least.
Aside from actually finding the office, there were a few other issues in getting the license. The first of these was the amount of paperwork involved. I had hoped that the process would be relatively simple. Sadly, I was out of luck. Before I could even apply for the license, my employers had to put together a tower of paperwork. This involved an application form, copies of my passport and resident card, a copy of my visa and a statement outlining my exact salary – foreigners are not allowed to spend more than ten percent of their salary on alcohol. Once I had this, and found the office, the gentleman behind the counter took great delight in examining them in intense detail and peppering me with questions to verify the information. Thankfully, though, after a prolonged expedition to find the office and thrity minutes intense interrogation, I had my license.
I had purchased a license that would allow me to buy 30O.R of alcohol per month. This, itself, cost me 30O.R. I could have bought a license that would allow me to buy up to 95O.R per month. However, two factors tempered me on that issue. The first was that it would cost me 100O.R to buy. And, second, it would have genuinely made me question whether I had an alcohol problem. So, with my 30O.R license in hand, what was the first thing I did? I drove to the liquor store and spent 30O.R on three slabs of beer! I told myself that this was perfectly normal behaviour in a Muslim country.