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Alcohol brands blocked from Dubai target Abu Dhabi

In Dubai, '80% of the wine lists are the same', but Abu Dhabi is opening to more alcohol brands Pexels/Helena Lopes
In Dubai, '80% of the wine lists are the same', but Abu Dhabi is opening to more alcohol brands
  • Dubai is an alcohol duopoly
  • Reluctance to introduce competition
  • Abu Dhabi grants more licences

Independent alcohol brands blocked from the Dubai market are entering the UAE by breaking into the more open Abu Dhabi market, industry insiders have said.

The alcohol market in the UAE is regulated at the emirate level, and each has different levels of access and competition.

Dubai’s market is a duopoly. Two distributors – Maritime and Mercantile International (MMI) and African & Eastern – control the majority of supply.

A similar concentration is observed in retail, where many outlets, despite seeming to offer variety, are tied to the same two entities.

MMI is a subsidiary of the state-owned Emirates Group, the parent company of Emirates airline and owned by sovereign wealth fund the Investment Corporation of Dubai.

African & Eastern was established more than 60 years ago and is a joint venture between a series of local investors and AB Inbev, the world’s largest brewer and owner of brands such as Budweiser and Stella Artois.

Dominique Szymura, the founder and CEO of CityDrinks, an Abu Dhabi-based alcohol delivery app, told AGBI smaller labels from around the globe find it difficult to enter the Dubai market because of the stronghold of a few large importers.

“Approximately twice a week I am contacted by various brands with the same story – that they have been waiting two years [to enter Dubai], and so they are asking to work with us,” he said.

Szymura said the major importers have exclusive agreements, which makes them reluctant to introduce products that compete with their flagship big brands.

This restrictive practice limits the variety available in the market, Szymura said – contrasting Abu Dhabi’s market, which lacks such constraints and has granted around 20 alcohol import trade licences, including CityDrinks.

“Abu Dhabi is in expansionary mode,” he said. “It makes competition work.”

Naim Maadad is chief executive of Gates Hospitality, which launched in 2010 and has six restaurants across the UAE. He said allowing more players to enter the alcohol market would provide greater product accessibility and help to boost Dubai’s tourism and hospitality sectors.

“I don’t think there should be duopoly,” he told AGBI

“Today, you walk into any venue in Dubai and 80 percent of the wine lists are the same. The only thing that changes is the selling price, which is incorrect. The culinary position on food has evolved so quickly. We need to make sure beverage programs are supplementing the same.”

Dubai boasts more than 11,000 restaurants, which contribute significantly to its economy.

“Abu Dhabi is playing a different game and we’re seeing a lot more relaxed and a wider approach,” Maadad said.

“I’m hoping we will see the same in Dubai as well, to make sure that we keep the city affordable so we don’t scare people to other destinations.” 

Szymura said CityDrinks, which launched in November last year, is engaging with brands previously sidelined in Dubai, offering a wider selection to hotels in Abu Dhabi.

The company has already recorded around 2,000 app downloads and manages 200 daily deliveries. It said it offers an extensive selection of brands and variants, including 100 craft brews. 

The UAE has been gradually liberalising its alcohol policies, including allowing service during Ramadan and no longer requiring residents to hold a licence to consume alcohol.

Abu Dhabi’s first brewery opened last year. In addition to beer, it will make gin, whiskey and hard (alcoholic) seltzer.

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