Ramadan in Dubai – What is it and what happens?

The posts that I have written for Ramadan over the last two years have been very much focussed on readers from within Dubai and the Arab world, included details of my favourite places to experience Iftar in Dubai, and my recommendations of how to make the most of the Holy Month as an expat in the Middle East. This year, after answering a multitude of questions from friends and family in the UK again, I decided to go back to basics and do something for the readers from further afield who may not be familiar with what happens at this time of year and how the annual event impacts expats and tourists, so here it is, my list of FAQ answers:

When does Ramadan take place?

I’m a bit behind the times writing this post as we are now halfway through the Holy Month, but on returning to the UAE after my summer holiday, I thought it might still be useful to those heading out to Dubai in the next couple of weeks (whether for a holiday or to start a new job and life) and still hopefully interesting to those who aren’t.

The timing of Ramadan is based on the moon cycle, this means it changes every year, moving a couple of weeks earlier. This year it started on 30th June and will potentially end on 28th July, therefore in 2015 it is estimated to start on 18th June and finish on 17th July, although this is always subject to variations of 1-2 days depending on the actual sighting of the moon.

What is Ramadan and how do Muslims celebrate?

Ramadan itself is not seen as a celebration, this is reserved for the 3-4 day Eid public holiday at the end of the month. Muslims use Ramadan as a time to think on all that they have to be grateful for and appreciate the position of those in less fortunate circumstances. They pray more, help others and give to charity, and they fast all day to appreciate what it means to go without and to exercise restraint and self-purification. This is not just limited to food and drinks, but includes smoking, chewing gum and intimacy too, all of which is banned from sunrise until sunset, when they can break the fast at Iftar.

What is Iftar?

This is the meal to break the fast, Iftar timings are published in the newspapers every day and at this time the call to prayer will sound and Muslims will pray, then wake up their digestive system with milk and dates, before settling into a more substantial meal. Muslim families will prepare the meal at home for sociable gatherings of friends and family, with large platters of different dishes on offer (it always reminds me of a Christmas dinner at home in terms of atmosphere, sentiment and volume of food!)
In the UAE, Iftar has become more of a commercial occasion with most hotels and corporate venues offering purpose-built Ramadan outlets and luxury decorated and air-conditioned tents with extensive five-star buffets, so much so that despite Ramadan being a month of fasting, there are often lots of health problems associated with eating too much!

How do Muslims function without food and water?

In essence the eating patterns are changed, so that people are not so much fasting, as just eating at different times of day. Iftar breaks the fast at sunset with a big meal (here in Dubai it’s around 7.10pm at the moment, obviously for those further from the equator, the daylight hours are extended and fasting is for even longer periods), Muslims can then drink fluids, eat and smoke throughout the evening, and so will go to bed much later than normal. They would then try to wake up just before the sunrise for Suhoor (the early morning meal) and often go back to bed again, starting work later and finishing earlier.

How does Ramadan affect non-Muslim expats living in Dubai?

Working hours are reduced from eight hours to six for all workers in the UAE, regardless of their religion, origin or whether they are fasting. There are many employers who try to get around this, but these companies can face heavy penalties if discovered.

Any meetings with fasting Muslims are generally more productive if held late morning, rather than early afternoon or first thing. Most restaurants and cafes will be closed but take out is available from most fast food places and most companies will provide a covered eating/drinking area so that you do not eat or drink at your desk.

How does Ramadan affect those non-Muslims holiday in Dubai?

Eating, drinking and smoking are forbidden in public during daylight hours, which makes lying on a beach or by a pool in 40+ degree heat fairly uncomfortable, some hotels have screened areas at their pools where you can get some (non-alcoholic) drinks and food but these will be hidden away and not be somewhere you choose to while away time.

Alcohol is available at restaurants and bars in the evenings, but no celebrations will take place, so there will be no live music, no DJ’s or parties, bars and restaurants will play quiet background music, and the clubs will be closed.

Modest dress is expected in public areas of Dubai at any time, but there is a particular focus on this during Ramadan, as well as the public displays of affection, so make sure you are not flaunting yourself or your feelings in public during the day.

Generally hotels are well geared up for Ramadan and it can be a fantastic time to visit as there are many special cultural events laid on and a lot more focus from everyone living here on hospitality and good will.

I think this just about covers the subjects I am asked , at least I know have a place to direct people to, rather than repeating the same answers every year. If you have any other questions, or any info you think I have missed, then please do comment and let me know, but for now, the sun is setting and it’s time to go and eat – Ramadan Kareem!