Boozy brunches and alcohol-fueled ladies’ nights are a well-known fixture on the UAE social scene, but a new trend indicates that more and more residents are quitting alcohol to improve their mental health and physical wellbeing. It’s been dubbed the “sober curious” movement, but it simply refers to people who have decided to quit drinking or reduce their booze intake for personal or wellness reasons.
Being trapped indoors during the Covid-19 lockdowns caused many people to turn to drink for a variety of reasons — from anxiety, to boredom or grieving over family members lost to the virus. A study in America last year revealed that since the start of 2020, alcohol consumption in adults has increased by 14 percent.
But others have used the pandemic to seek out sobriety. Being sober curious also means examining why you drink alcohol, and one UAE resident who is just embarking on her own sober curious journey is British radio presenter and journalist Helen Farmer.
“What I’ve found over the past year is that for many people, alcohol has become a default for relaxation and winding down,” says Farmer, who hosts the daily afternoon show on Dubai Eye 103.8. “I know it’s not a healthy coping strategy and I’ve realized this isn’t how life should be. I know I can do better than this.”
Farmer has decided to reduce her intake for several reasons — some related to her family (she is married with two daughters), and some personal (she has signed up to climb Mount Kilimanjaro later this year). She has also been inspired by her husband, who stopped drinking 18 months ago.
“I’m aware of just how much better he’s feeling as a result,” she says. “Then I signed up to climb Kilimanjaro, this October, and anything I can do to get into great physical shape and also a great mental place, is a good idea.”
She also wants to improve her daughters’ quality of life, Farmer adds.
“I’ve never been someone who would take to my bed for hours over a weekend because of drinking, but it definitely does affect my mood,” she says. “I’m more irritable and more tired and that’s not fair on my kids. One morning at the weekend they will see me up at 6.30am ready for the beach, and then the next morning alcohol might make me less active and able to have fun. That’s something I want to avoid as well.”
Farmer believes she’s not alone. In fact, she feels she’s part of a growing movement. “Having done a lot of reading around it myself, it just feels like there’s going to be a big shift. It might not be in the next couple of years — it might be in the next couple of decades — but it looks like more people are not drinking alcohol.”
There’s plenty of evidence to support this claim. Recent research suggests that Generation Z (those born between the mid-1990s and early 2010s) are drinking 20 percent less than millennials (born between the early 1980s to the mid 1990s and also known as Generation Y) who, as an age group, are also drinking less than their predecessors, Generation X and Baby Boomers.
One millennial who has said farewell to alcohol is 28-year-old Abu Dhabi resident and yoga teacher Alex McRobert. Originally from Canada, she quit two years ago after realizing drinking was having a negative impact on her physical and mental heath, and was also affecting her yoga career. Since quitting, she has gone on to launch a Facebook group for non-drinkers in the UAE, host a podcast on sobriety and hold yoga classes specifically for non-drinkers and the sober curious.
“I got really swept up into the brunch and ladies’ night lifestyle,” says McRobert. “I would teach hot yoga classes hungover and toward the end of my drinking, my yoga was suffering. It was becoming less authentic and my teaching was deteriorating. I didn’t have a lot of people attending classes anymore.”
Fast-forward two years and McRobert’s life has changed dramatically.
“It’s unbelievable what a difference not drinking has made,” she says. ”Now, I am a sober coach, so I work with people on their sobriety, and host my classes.”
Her Facebook group and other social media accounts are also going from strength to strength since launching. She also has over 17,000 followers on Instagram.
“There weren’t many drinks available for me at brunches when I first quit, and I realized I can’t be the only sober person in the UAE facing this problem,” she says. “I started the group and had 50 members within a day. It shows how much of a need there is for this. People are posting about where they can find alcohol-free options in the country.”
One place where non-alcoholic drinks are readily available is the Drink Dry Store. It was launched in the UAE last December by British expat Erika Doyle, who quit drinking six years ago. The online store has proved to be a hit with the country’s sober curious.
“When I gave up alcohol, I was living in the UK and the category of non-alcoholic beers, wines and gins was already emerging there, so I didn’t find it difficult to give up because there were alternatives that were not sugary soft drinks or water,” she says. “My family and I moved to the UAE full-time in April 2019 and I couldn’t believe that the drinks I could get in Europe and America were not available here.”
After trying, but failing, to get the country’s F&B industry interested in stocking booze-free drinks, she decided to go it alone and launch her own store.
“The feedback has been phenomenal. We didn’t have sales targets as such, but if we had, we would have smashed them. We had people going mad with their orders during dry January, but we only had five products at that point — one beer, one wine and three gins. It’s lovely getting feedback from people who are happy that quality non-alcoholic alternatives are finally available. Our customers are non-drinkers, but also people who are just cutting back.”
Demand has been so high, the store is expanding its list of products, adding more beer, a range of wines, whisky and rum. They are also distributing to restaurants in the UAE after a successful visit to GulFood earlier this year, along with supermarket orders.
“Once people try our products they understand that this is a whole new game,” says Doyle. “We’re offering sophisticated drinks for adults that taste as close to the real deal as possible.”
Doyle is another who believes the sober curious movement is in full flow.
“I want to see non-alcoholic drinks available in every bar and restaurant in the UAE,” she says. “I see a big change in the older generation, who are joining the sober curious movement, and younger generations just don’t seem as interested in alcohol. There is no stopping the zero alcohol revolution now.”
• As part of Sober October and leading up to Dry January, Livehealthy will explore all aspects of the UAE’s growing sober curious movement with a variety of stories, podcasts and social media posts.
Andy Sherwood is a former magazine editor who now works in marketing, and is a passionate road cyclist and