ABU DHABI // Restaurants are charging massive mark-ups for bottles of local water - in contravention of the law - or serving only expensive imported brands.
Thirty of 60 restaurants contacted by The National in Abu Dhabi and Dubai served only imported water and not cheaper, local options.
Almost all the restaurants that sold local water did so at vastly inflated prices. One increased the price by more than 2,000 per cent, and mark-ups of more than 1,000 per cent were common. That is illegal, the Ministry of Economy said. Restaurants are not allowed to increase the price of local bottled water beyond the supermarket price, which is regulated by the ministry.
Dr Hashim Al Nuaimi, the ministry's head of consumer protection, said any more than Dh3 for a bottle that cost Dh1.5 in a store was "taking advantage of the consumer".
"I am OK with a restaurant selling larger bottles of water for Dh2 or Dh3, but when they charge Dh5 for a bottle that originally costs Dh1.5, then that is completely wrong and unacceptable and actually illegal."
He urged patrons to report restaurants that overcharged. "We have a hotline that consumers should be using, to tell us when they are charged Dh10 for a bottle of water," he said. "We will then take the necessary steps to prosecute the establishment, warn them, fine them, whatever we have to do to make sure the law is upheld."
Not one of the restaurants surveyed that served local water complied with the price law. The closest was The Ivy in Jumeirah Emirates Towers, which charged Dh10 for a large bottle of Dibba water, and The One cafe in Abu Dhabi, which sold Masafi for the same price. The average cost for local water was Dh18.6 - almost 1,300 per cent more than the average supermarket price.
The controls only apply to local brands of water. Dr Al Nuaimi said imported water was a "separate case".
Even so, restaurants should be reasonable, according to Mike Barker, the general manager of the Good Food Company, an importer of British food products.
"A large bottle of imported water should retail at no more than Dh10 and a small bottle no more than Dh5," he said.
In fact, the average was Dh28 - a mark-up of almost 300 per cent on the supermarket average of Dh7.50.
Few restaurants were willing to discuss the practice. The National contacted Nobu at Atlantis The Palm; Hukama in The Address, Downtown Dubai; Rivington Grill in Souk Al Bahar; La Petite Maison in Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC); and Hakkasan in Emirates Palace hotel, but none was able to provide a spokesman to discuss water prices. Zuma, in DIFC, refused to comment.
In Abu Dhabi, Jones the Grocer, an Australian franchise, serves two brands of imported water, but no local water. It sells litre bottles of Antipodes, from New Zealand, for Dh19 and 850ml bottles of Voss, from Norway, for Dh18.
Theresa Elliott, the manager of the Jones the Grocer outlet in Al Nahyan, said that was because the chain wants to supply the best imports from around the world - including water.
According to the US-based Beverage Marketing Corporation, the UAE has the highest per capita consumption of bottled water in the world.
Nevertheless, the sale of imported water seems to be one of the main complaints directed at restaurants around the country.
"Most restaurants will claim that expensive foreign waters are a reflection of the restaurant brand and, as such, come at a premium," said James Brennan, the chair of the 50 Best Restaurants board for the Middle East. "But we all know it's a way of squeezing more cash from the customer."
Sho Cho, in Abu Dhabi's Souk Qaryat Al Beri, serves Aquafina mineral water at Dh17 for a one-litre bottle. Shiv Kumar, the restaurant manager, said that was because the restaurant had a contract with PepsiCo.
Although Aquafina is a global brand, the version sold in the UAE uses treated local water from a natural source in Dibba, according to Rafik El Noumeir, the marketing manager of PepsiCo in the Gulf region.
In many cases, customers were paying for the name on the bottle rather than the contents, said Mr Barker, so restaurants could set high prices. "In the UK and the US you can request for iced tap water to be brought to your table for free," he said.
Local tap water - desalinated seawater - is safe to drink as long as tanks and pipes are clean and well-maintained, according to the Emirates Environmental Group and Dubai Electricity and Water Authority.
However, many people are reluctant to drink it because of a widespread view that the desalination process and the water distribution network combine to give it an off-putting taste.
That made it all the more important to provide local water cheaply, said Mr Barker.
"The cost of local water is minimum five times cheaper than imported water," he said.
Jibi Mathew, the manager of The One cafe in the capital, believed all local produce should be promoted.
"The quality of bottled water in the UAE is excellent … quality checks are very strict," he said. "I recommend all restaurants serve local water … we don't need to depend on flights for it."
Imported water also has a substantially bigger carbon footprint. According to a study on the online service IOP science, a platform for journal content from the London-based Institute of Physics, "long-distance transport can lead to energy costs comparable to, or even larger than, the energy to produce the bottle. Far less energy is needed for processing and treating the water, and cooling bottles for retail sale".
And restaurants that believed their customers would look down their noses at local water were just plain wrong, Mr Brennan said.
"Most restaurant-goers would think no less of a fine-dining restaurant if it offered a reasonably priced local water option," he said. "On the contrary, they would have more respect for the restaurant, and it would allow them to get on with enjoying the main reason for going there in the first place - the food."
If you are charged more than Dh3 for a large bottle of water, you are paying too much. Report the restaurant to the ministry's consumer protection hotline on 600 522225 and email The National at firstname.lastname@example.org to let us know how you get on.
* With additional reporting by Jen Thomas and Hala Khalaf