December 23, 2009

Trying to Get Legal

This is a country that has lots of rules, in terms of personal behavior, and few rules in terms of safety.

I cannot buy alcohol in a shop without a license and to get that license I need a letter of permission from my employer. The same holds true if I want to, say, get a driver's license. Or change jobs.

On the other hand, apparently I am free to let my child ride in the front seat of the car, standing up against the dashboard. Or to let said child hang half-way out the window or stand up through the sun roof. Forget about car seats; I've never seen one here.

The regulations for building safety here also are few and far between, although the government is making some headway there. In its efforts to be business-friendly, the country is quite worker unfriendly.

But I digress and that's a whole other post. This is about me trying to get some booze for the holidays.

A colleague told us during Thanksgiving that he'd found an easier path to getting an alcohol license. One still needed three photos, a copy of the visa and passport, an employment contract and a "letter of no objection" from one's employer. But instead of driving all the way out to Khalifa City, the license could be obtained at a Western-style grocery store.

This was good news. In early December I asked the newsroom manager for my letter and I figured I'd get around to the store sooner rather than later. She produced it within a few days and it was valid for a month.

Today I had a doctor's appointment nearby the grocery store and could run both errands in the same outing.

But. (And there's always a but here)

It turns out that the grocery no longer provides this service to its customers. I seem to remember hearing that at Christmas-time something happens. I'm not sure if the government steps in and says, "Whoa!" or if the owners of the market don't like the volume, or if it draws too much attention to them and they've been doing it sort of surreptitiously .... Regardless, on this day, they were not providing the licensing service. I needed to go out to Khalifa City police station, the clerk said, and handed me a form.

Khalifa City is a good 25k from my home, and I was a good 10k farther away at that moment. The clerk was encouraging, telling me it wouldn't take long to get the license this way -- same-day service, apparently, as opposed to going through the grocery which might take a week. And they were open till 3 p.m. she said, so I could get there in plenty of time

That, as you may have deduced, is the key part of this discussion.

So I manage to get a cab with few hassles. Good start. He is willing to take me to Khalifa City, and more importantly, willing to wait there for me while I get the license. Khalifa City is a suburb of Abu Dhabi. It's off the island, and is a collection of large villas that cater to Western expats. (Or, as my taxi driver none-too-subtly suggested, only white people live there). But it has few amenities, in terms of shops and restaurants and there are almost no taxis available. While we are in a residential neighborhood now, we are not really in the suburbs.

Anyway, the taxi driver says he'll wait for me, and suggests that I check all my documents and fill out the form before I arrive. As I'm doing so, I realize I don't have the necessary photos. Everything here requires photos, and I spent the better part of an afternoon yesterday trying to get them. It's not that it's difficult, it's that the shops that provide them close from 1-5 and I never seem to remember this.

Again we encounter the time-frame issue.

The taxi takes me past my house, I pick up the photos and some extra documentation, just in case, and off we go out to the boonies. Past the lovely Grand Mosque, past the new sports stadium and almost to the airport.

I get there, the taxi parks, I go in and find plenty of people sitting around doing nothing ... except for the person who handles the alcohol license. That person, clearly, has gone home. Or gone somewhere. Too bad, the Emirati behind the counter sings to me. Closed! I say, but I thought you were open until 3? Now it is only 1. I admit that I kind of beg. Are you sure? Really, I was told 3, I say. Come back in the morning he says. I ask him to check my documents; I don't want to come back a third time. He waves me off to another colleague, who only says to me that she doesn't handle the licenses, come back tomorrow. They both vaguely wave to a third colleague who is praying in the corner.

(Yes, I see the look on all your faces )

I wait for him to stop praying. You're not supposed to watch people pray. It's considered rude. So I sit down so as not to be so obvious. He sees me out of the corner of his eye when he gets up, but tries to avoid me. I call out to him and ask him to look at my documents. He clearly speaks very little English. He hands me a form. I tell him I already have the form. I ask him to look at my documents, please, to see if I have everything. He says come back tomorrow in the morning.

Dejected, I leave and the taxi driver is surprised to see me so quickly. Finished already he asks? No, I say. They're closed. At 1. He feels bad. Where to, he asks? Home, I say.

We chat a bit in the car. He tells me where I can buy alcohol without a license. He likes to drink a little, he says. Whiskey with his friends on his day off. He asks me how the license is supposed to work. I know that he cannot afford to buy alcohol in the hotel bars and restaurants. I don't need a license, necessarily, but it will be good to have. He gives me his phone number so I can call him in the morning, if I want to go back.

When I get home, I realize we have driven nearly 70km. In a town this size, that's a lot. The taxi bill is ridiculously high by local standards. Just under $30 with a tip. My daily trip to work costs $2.70, including a very large tip.

And I still have nothing to drink.

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