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Dubai’s evolving approach to Ramadan

Striking a pragmatic balance between the transactional and the spiritual

Bull and Bear restaurant DIFC Dubai Dubai Tourism
Corporate Iftar gatherings are an opportunity to meet business associates in a more informal setting than an office

You would hardly know it has been Ramadan in the Dubai International Financial Centre. The car park was not as full as the rest of the year, and the homeward exodus began earlier, but otherwise it was more or less business as usual.

I’m not for one second insinuating that my Muslim friends in the DIFC do not observe the obligations of the holy month. I know – from many conversations – that they are as steadfast in the commitment to their faith as any other believers in this part of the world.

But it is also true to say that Dubai’s financial hub has been at the forefront of the trend – seen across the whole of the emirate and most of the UAE – to liberalise the strictures of the annual ritual of fasting, abstinence and prayer, especially as they affect non-Muslims.

When I first arrived in the region in 2006, it was far more rigorously applied to non-believers. Restaurants were partitioned off, out of sight; smoking (filthy habit anyway) was forbidden outside and security staff were on the watch for anybody sneaking a clandestine drag. Even taking a swig of water, or chewing gum in public, could be the occasion for a reprimand.

All that has more or less gone in 2023. A visitor to the DIFC – or a holidaymaker on a Jumeirah beach for that matter – would hardly know there was anything different about the time of year.

That is the point, surely. As Dubai comes to rely on the three main drivers of its economy – the three Ts of trade, transport and tourism, plus an F for finance – it is no longer in its commercial interests to impose full Ramadan restrictions on travellers, for business or leisure, during the month.

As ever, Dubai seeks to strike a pragmatic balance between the transactional and the spiritual, and there is an acceptance that economic life has to go on even while observing the precepts of Islam.

In fact, the holy month is seen as an occasion to enhance business relationships within the rituals of Islam. Corporate Iftar and Suhour gatherings are an opportunity to meet business associates in a rather more informal setting than an office, and are an efficient way of networking and contact-building outside office hours.

But Ramadan is still special, and I’m sad it has come to an end. There is a peace and tranquility to Dubai during the holy month that brings out the best in people, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. Even chance conversations seem more meaningful, and can extend longer, or head into unexpected areas.

I make a point of wishing “Ramadan Kareem” to people I come across in everyday life, like Uber drivers, and asking how the month is progressing.

One Pakistani driver, Shahid, recently took that as an opportunity to explain the full Ramadan cycle to me, with the significance of prayer timings and other minutiae of the month. I was impressed by the depth of his knowledge and the strength of his religious conviction.

He knew of the Christian abstinence ritual during Lent, and quizzed me on that, though I had to confess that for the average Christian it was nowhere near as demanding as Ramadan.

Probably trying to impress him back, I told him that this year, I had decided to abstain from alcohol for the period of Ramadan (which was true).

He did not think much of my token sacrifice. “It is bad for you anyway, and your Bible forbids it. You should stop it completely,” he said.

For a while we debated whether the Bible really does forbid alcohol, and I tried to explain the quite important role wine plays in Christian ritual, but gave up when it came to transubstantiation. The mixture of blood and wine was abhorrent to him.

He dropped me at the entrance to DIFC Gate Village, which even in mid-afternoon is still something of a glamour parade, with men in well-cut and expensive business suits and women in slinky (but office-appropriate) dresses.

How perfectly Dubai observes Ramadan, I thought, as I ascended the escalator to the temples of finance.

Frank Kane is AGBI’s Editor-at-Large

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