For shisha cafes, no smoke without ire

The UAE's approach to shisha cafes follows the stricter rules invoked by many Arab nations, but attempts to keep the beneficial social elements of the cafe culture.

Powered by automated translation

Few topics have the power to polarise views quite like shisha cafes. Proponents contend that they provide a pleasant and traditional way to spend time with friends, puffing away occasionally while talking or watching football. For opponents, meanwhile, shisha is far more unhealthy than conventional smoking and shisha cafes themselves are both polluting and often crowded late into the night, disrupting the residential areas where many are located.

Finding a policy that balances these two competing views is one the UAE authorities have settled firmly on the side of non-smokers, with tough new tobacco laws coming into force last week. New rules ban shisha cafes from being situated within 150 metres of homes, schools and mosques – a move that will close down the vast majority of cafes – and also introduce a tranche of other rules including the regulation of smoking in cars when children are present and preventing tobacco products being sold to minors, among others.

Many nations across the Arab world have deeply-ingrained shisha traditions. In Jordan, for example, half of all men smoke and the government has announced plans to enforce comprehensive antismoking laws that seek to ban smoking in restaurants, cafes and other public spaces. Around 6,000 coffee shops face having their licences revoked by the end of this year.

By contrast, the UAE’s new rules about shisha cafes are more measured, with the emphasis primarily on protecting the amenity of areas enjoyed by everyone rather than banning shisha smoking outright. This preserves many of the ancillary benefits of shisha cafes.

In a hectic world in which people increasingly isolate themselves by retreating into technology, this is a place for people to get together, relax and discuss the matters important to them. Of course this happens in any majlis but there is an important distinction in favour of the shisha cafe: it offers the prospect of meeting a wider community of people, some of whom will hold different points of view.

When planners design new communities and suburbs in the UAE, one of their considerations ought to be to include shisha zones that comply with the rules about distances from homes, schools and mosques, so that the social benefits of the shisha cafe culture can continue without affecting anyone else.