Stephanie Williams: Ramadan – The implications for expatriates in the Middle East

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The Muslim holy month of Ramadan starts today and while it does mean changes to business practices and lifestyles it is also an opportunity to strengthen business relationships. Having first moved to the Middle in East in the mid-1990s, I am very culturally aware.  I first lived in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, one of the most conservative cities in the world with strict Islamic regulations and rules, including a ban on alcohol and women driving as well as laws on attire.

The United Arab Emirates where I am now based, is more liberal, for while there are regulations on respectful attire there is a relaxed attitude regarding their enforcement. Dubai, a top tourist destination with some of the top bars and clubs, the famous Dubai Friday ‘brunches’ and endless entertainment options, is usually a city that does not sleep. During Ramadan, however, things change. As the holy month is observed the regulations and laws in the UAE are more strictly applied and certain restrictions enforced.  But how does this affect me as an expatriate in Dubai?

The majority of food and beverage outlets are closed from dawn to dusk, with it being illegal to eat, drink, smoke or even chew gum in public during the day (including in my car).  It means no takeaway coffee in the morning, no eating out at lunch and remembering to conceal that bottle of water on the way the gym. It appears quite restrictive for those who are not fasting but it is not that difficult (although I am not a smoker). Many offices have private kitchen areas where employees can eat or drink and with working hours shortened by two hours per day by law, you can head home to eat in private.

With shorter working hours enforced for public and private sector businesses, business does tend to slow down during Ramadan. Lack of food and water, coupled with Ramadan falling in the summer months the past few years (it moves 10 days earlier each year in line with the Hijri calendar), and the temperatures hitting over 50 degrees Celsius means that it is a popular time for people to travel and escape the heat.  Many executives, company signatories or decision makers are not around in the summer months or over Ramadan and therefore things take longer to be approved or finalised.

As a woman, I am particularly sensitive to the dress code ‘regulations’ of living in an Arab country, particularly if I am going to a shopping mall for example where shoulders and knees (both men and women) should be covered.  During Ramadan the dress code is applied across the country, people are expected to be respectful to those observing the fast and not distract or offend in their clothing choice.  I will pay more attention to the hem length of a dress or skirt and make sure instead of carrying my jacket to the car in the morning, I wear it, covering my arms.

The car radio will be set a little lower during the holy month as music should not be heard, I will need to make sure I turn it off if I am at a petrol station or pulling into a quiet area.  There will not be any big nights out at the weekend with bars closing earlier and all live music prohibited during the holy month and only background music allowed.  Cinemas will not show any new releases and no big events or activities will take place.  It is a time for reflection, contemplation and prayer and there should be as little distraction as possible.

However, embracing Ramadan and its values rather than viewing it as a period of restrictions can prove to be an uplifting and fulfilling experience.  Joining Muslim friends or colleagues (normally in the third or fourth week of Ramadan after the dedicated family weeks) at an Iftar to celebrate the breaking of the fast or sipping mint tea during a Suhoor later in the night, in a traditional Ramadan tent, means that we can all enjoy the spirit of Ramadan.  Dubai comes alive at night with restaurants, shopping malls and shops open until the small hours.  This sense of celebration grows as the weeks of Ramadan build towards the Eid holiday and the festivities that ensue.

Ramadan Kareem!

Find TMF Group’s 10 tips for doing business in Ramadan here.

Title image “Fanous Ramadan” courtesy of Ibrahim.ID via Wikimedia Commons.

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About Stephanie Williams

Stephanie WilliamsStephanie Williams is based in Dubai and manages TMF Group’s Legal and Governance team in Dubai and Qatar.  Originally from Dublin, Stephanie has spent over twenty years in the Middle East living in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates and now Dubai. 

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