This is not intended to be a definitive guide to the holy month, but is a simple overview and more importantly, a ‘what not to do’ for those who are not fully aware or are new to the UAE.
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Muslim calendar and the month in which the Quran was revealed. The annual observation of the fast during the month is one of the five pillars of Islam and is a serious matter for Muslims as a test of faith. It is also a month to take things a little easier and to spend time with family.
This year Ramadan is expected to start on or around 17th May and at time of writing the date was yet to be confirmed. The UAE usually follows the announcement of Saudi Arabia but also has its own moon-sighting committee. The dates move forward by some 10 to 12 days each year as the Hijari calendar is slightly shorter than the Gregorian one that is in common use.
Those who don’t fast need to be aware of some restrictions and guidelines, and have consideration for those who do fast as it can be tough.
Do not eat, drink or smoke in public during fasting hours. This extends to chewing gum.
Whilst small children are exempt from fasting, please be discreet if giving them food or drinks.
Do not play loud music during the month. Stick to headphones and turn the volume down.
No public displays of affection and avoid swearing.
Many cafes and restaurants will shut for the month, at least during the day as licences are required to serve food and drink and they also often need to put up shutters and screens to be out of the general view. Every hotel will have somewhere open during the day and you can find a list of independent venues that are open during the month at the end of this article.
All the larger malls will have at least one food court that is open, behind screens.
In the past it was forbidden to serve alcohol during the day but this restriction has been eased in the past couple of years to the point where a few venues are even advertising brunches as usual. A word of warning though; the authorities will appreciate public drunkenness even less than usual so be smart when leaving venues.
Do dress a little more modestly. The UAE is very lax about dress codes but this is a time to ensure that shoulders and knees are covered when out and about.
Long term residents will tell you that the standards of driving can become more erratic this month so be aware of this when out and about. You’ll often find people in a real rush to get home shortly before iftar too.
Have a little extra consideration for taxi and delivery drivers who need to go about their work as usual and may be finding it tough whilst fasting.
In accordance with Article 65 of UAE Labour Law, ‘the ordinary working hours shall be reduced by two hours during Ramadan’. This applies to all employees whether they are fasting or not.
An exception here is non-Muslim employees who come under DIFC employment law.
You may find that some stores and businesses keep different timings so it can be wise to check. Food shops will be open as usual during the day.
When does the day of fasting end?
Strictly speaking the daily fast ends at sunset. The daily timings are published in local media and in some parts of the city you may even hear the firing of the Ramadan cannon in the evening! Mosques will play the Azzan (the call the prayer) to announce the Maghrib prayers and that is the signal for many to break their fast.
If Ramadan starts on 17th May, the Maghrib prayer will be at 7pm and another minute will be added every two to three days.
What are iftar and suhour?
Iftar is the meal to break the fast just after sunset. Many people will eat traditional foods at home such as dates and fruit juices (and Vimto is surprisingly popular) before heading to evening prayers.
You will find that all hotels, and many independent restaurants offer an iftar meal for a set price. This can be a basic affair or a lavish feast in a five-star hotel. It is the norm to eat heartily with friends and family. You will see many adverts for iftar meals in local publications.
Suhoor is the meal taken just before sunrise, before the day of fasting starts. Whilst many people will rise early to eat and drink to keep them going during the day, many venues will offer a late night to early morning suhoor with unlimited soft drinks, snacks and shisha.
You will find that there are often various charity initiatives that take place over the month. These range from residents stocking fridges with free food and drink for labourers and those who are less well off. There are initiatives to fund filling iftar meals for manual workers too.
Note that all charitable endeavours must meet local legal guidelines but that will not prevent anyone from handing out bottles of water, or packs of dates or snacks, to others.
Charity is an important part of Ramadan and a great way to get involved in community events and initiatives.
Eid al Fitr
This is the ‘Festival of the breaking of the fast’ and takes places as soon as the end of Ramadan is announced, after 30 days but subject to the sighting of the moon for the following month. It is a time to dress up in new clothes and to visit friends and family with gifts.
The UAE has an official two day public holiday but in 2018 at least part of it may fall over the weekend which would mean that few people will get any extra days off. Again, the actual dates will be subject to confirmation as with all Islamic holidays.
What else should I know?
Ramadan is usually a slightly quieter month and as government offices will have shorter hours it can take longer for official business to be concluded. There is no point is getting frustrated, instead make the most of the shorter working hours, the iftars, the general goodwill. The restrictions on expat life are fewer as the years go by but we need to be considerate and courteous. Embrace the differences.
You’ll win friends by being thoughtful and by using appropriate greetings such as Ramadan Kareem (happy/generous Ramadan) or Ramadan Mubarak (blessed Ramadan).
Ramadan Kareem to all.