ABU DHABI // Shisha cafe owners have been warned – obey tough new rules or face fines of up to Dh1 million, two years in jail and closure of their businesses.
The Department of Economic Development says cafe owners were told in July of the rules, to give them time to make the changes needed.
“The deadline to comply is January 31 but most who are in the business have known this for long time as they were served notice six months back,” said Ahmed Al Qubaisi, acting commercial protection director at the department.
“No leniency will be exercised this time, due to a Cabinet decision on July 21. The authority takes all measures to ensure a healthy life to residents and children and protect them from shisha’s harmful effects.”
About 90 per cent of the cafes are in densely populated areas, despite rules stating they must be at least 150 metres from residential areas, schools and mosques.
They must also have a sign out the front banning customers younger than 18.
“Most are located in residential areas. They will have to transfer to other places or otherwise they will face the penalty,” said Mr Al Qubaisi.
Those that do meet the rules or transfer to a different area must apply for special licence to offer the shisha service.
The department says there are about 500 shisha cafes across the emirate, including 176 in Abu Dhabi city, 178 in Mussaffah, 90 in Al Ain and 11 in Al Gharbia.
At a shisha cafe in Khalidya, Ahmed Alawlaqi said he was not happy with the law.
“This place is very close to my home and I don’t have to drive or worry about parking,” said Mr Alawlaqi, who has been a daily customer for six years.
“This is the place and activity that relaxes me the most. After a long day of work I look forward to coming here.”
Khalidya will be hardest hit area with shisha cafes lining the inner streets.
“If there is no close alternative I will have to smoke less,” said the Emirati, who has smoked the waterpipe for over 20 years. “But I have no intention to stop.”
Mr Alawlaqi said the law would lead to more people taking up other kinds of smoke.
“Shisha is not as easily available and because it costs more than cigarettes and midwakh, the quantity smoked is much less,” he said.
“If these forms of smoke are allowed in these areas then I see no reason why shisha should be banned.”
But not every smoker sees the law in an unfavourable light.
Nawwaf Al Mhamahri, 22, and his friends have used their local shisha cafe as a meeting place for the past five years.
“We’ve been coming here almost every day and it’s a good spot to hang out, watch the games, talk and smoke,” said the Emirati student at the American University of Sharjah.
But Mr Al Mhamahri supported the laws.
“It’s a good law. To cut smoke out in public areas where people get bothered is a good thing.”
He said he started smoking shisha a few weeks ago and indulges the habit once or twice a week, so the ruling would not affect him badly.
“I think it will be tougher on these businesses because people come here just to smoke,” Mr Al Mhamahri said.
Under the requirements, shisha cafes should be no smaller than 200 square metres.
Restaurants that offer shisha must ensure these rooms are completely separate from non-smoking areas, with a minimum ceiling height of three metres.
And the internal dining room area of such restaurants should be no less than 150 sq metres.
Mr Al Qubaisi said many shisha cafes in residential areas share the building’s air conditioning, so the smoke can reach apartments.
Officials will conduct inspections from February and have pledged to act swiftly if any cafes are found to be in breach.
“We know all locations of these shisha cafes and within one day we can cover all these locations,” said Mr Al Qubaisi.
He said owners were now more aware of the laws and had been coming to the department for information.