Life lessons: Water is one of life’s essentials, so why are we charged for it in the UAE?

We have two customs in our family when guests visit our home – one is offer them tea or coffee once they have sat down, and whether they take the beverage or not, we bring them a glass of water. It is a sign of hospitality and one which has deep roots in the UAE, both culturally and religiously. It is a way to make guests feel comfortable and more at home in an environment in which they may not be used to.

In the UAE, making someone feel at home was embedded into the Bedouin way of life, where a tribe went so far as to host, feed and protect an individual for up to three days. This hospitality showcased the pride a tribe carried – for them it was as much about their honour as it was honouring the guest who was among them.

Whenever I visit a home I feel that hospitality has been passed on beautifully to the current generation and is something we hold very close.

However, I can’t say the same for the food and beverage establishments in the UAE. In the United States, when you visit a restaurant it is standard practice while you look over the menu to be asked: “Can I get you some water while you look over the menu?”, and I am not talking about the bottle of Masafi or Al Ain on your table which is opened up without you being asked and then added to your bill. The free water in the US is their way of saying “welcome”.

Even visiting Starbucks in our neighbourhood in the US, I would regularly ask for an iced water with my coffee and receive it at no extra charge. By habit, in the UAE I ask for iced water whenever I visit a restaurant or cafe but the first thing I get is bottled water, an international one of course, which is priced higher than the local brand. When I ask for just a regular glass of water, the staff always have a perplexed look on their faces, as if they are thinking, “What a strange being, what is this glass of water for? Where does it come from? And more importantly how do we charge for it?”

Just for a last bit of experiential research, I am writing this column in a restaurant and I just asked for a glass of water. After clarifying three times that I just wanted a glass of tap water and not a bottle, the waiter had to ask someone of higher authority to get permission.

The response was: “Sir, we can offer you ice, but the water is only from the bottle.” After taking a few moments to process this, I just let it happen.

Now, there are a few restaurants that offer free water. The little chapati and rice shack I used to visit beside my father’s house would always have a metal jug of water for free with a matching metal cup; I can still remember the metallic taste in my mouth as I drank the water, waiting for my rice and chicken stew – beautiful memories.

There have recently been complaints by consumers about inflated prices for water at UAE restaurants. For me, I want to ask why they are charging at all. How about at least offering customers some options? Government authorities in both Abu Dhabi and Dubai have confirmed that tap water, even unfiltered, is safe for drinking. Therefore, why not offer iced tap water for free, and charge (reasonably) for local and international brands?

I know that restaurants, especially ones that don’t sell alcohol, have to work hard to make reasonable margins. They invest in their produce, menus and furnishings, but how about investing in their customers? Beyond being hospitable, by providing free water, this is a form of investment in the customer – it shows you care about their health and want them to feel at home, but most importantly, it shows that you want them to come back again.

Khalid Al Ameri is an Emirati columnist and social commentator. He lives in Abu Dhabi with his wife and two sons.

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