Ramadan in the UAE

Jun 12, 2016 by Tamara Spell , in Tales from the Road
Lantern from a hotel in Dubai, UAE
It’s time for my second Ramadan as a UAE resident. I thought I’d provide some information for my friends back at home to know what it’s like.

The holy month of Ramadan is the ninth month of the Muslim calendar. Its timing changes year to year as it is based on local moon sightings. This year it began on June 6th, and it lasts for 30 days.

The observance of Ramadan is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. The holiday signifies the first Quranic revelation to Muhammad, and it is a time of fasting and increased prayer. Muslims are expected to fast between the sunrise and sunset prayer times. This time of the year, that is no small feat considering it amounts to approximately 15 hours with no food or water.

Non-muslims are allowed to eat, but not in public. Actually, eating or drinking in public, even if it’s just water in the 100-plus degree weather, can land you a fine of 2,000 AED (that’s near $600 US). Smoking and chewing gum are also not allowed.

For this reason, almost all restaurants are closed during the day. However, many are still open for delivery and takeaway services only. Additionally, there are a few restaurants in Abu Dhabi that have obtained a special license to stay open during the day and allow customers to come in and eat, and they typically have their windows covered so as not to offend anyone who is fasting. They also can’t play any music during that time.

Despite these restrictions, most restaurants will see an upsurge in business at Iftar, the evening meal when the fast is broken. These evening meals can be quite large and celebratory– I’ve learned that some fasting people even gain weight during the month. These meals are also an opportunity to spend some meaningful time with family and friends.

There are some exceptions to the fasting rule, although exempted individuals are still advised to use discretion and to avoid eating or drinking in public if possible. Pregnant women and children are exempt, as are ill or elderly people, and anyone who is traveling. Although this last category is not as clearly defined, it does allow for people to eat at the airports during travel.

During Ramadan, in addition to fasting, there is a focus on increasing pious thoughts and behavior. There is an increased number of prayers, and reading the Quran is encouraged. It is recommended to be generous, and donations to charity are common. Also, some wealthier families create large free Iftar meals for the less fortunate, where anyone can come and take as much food as they want.

As for the more contemporary effects of the holiday, some changes include shorter working hours– for most professions the work day is capped at six hours. This allows for a safer fasting habit (and in theory safer commuting conditions), as well as more time to focus on prayer and other religious activities. The decreased hours are extended to non-Muslims as well.

There are also big Ramadan sales at the malls, car dealerships, and various other businesses. I’ve even seen some fashion designers release Ramadan collections. While some expats criticize this commercialism during the holy month, I figure it’s not that different from Black Friday after Thanksgiving or the consumption around Christmas time in the Western hemisphere. It’s certainly possible to go overboard, but I think a bit of shopping and gift buying can be reasonable.

One downside is that there is an increase in traffic accidents– and I’m not surprised by that statistic as I can definitely see an increase in dangerous driving behavior already. Plenty of drivers in the city can be aggressive and erratic on any given day- but it's worse during Ramadan. This is largely a secondary effect of fatigue and low blood sugar, and it’s recommended to not drive any more than you need to, especially in the hour before Iftar.

One more benefit is that there are some great hotel deals during this time. Last year I visited Dubai and Fujairah during Ramadan, and this year I’ll be staying at Jebel Hafeet in Al Ain for a weekend. The hotels are typically quieter during this time as well, which is to my liking :)

The typical greeting for this time is Ramadan Kareem, which wishes the recipient a blessed Ramadan. So if you have Muslim friends back at home, be sure to wish them Ramadan Kareem.