Visitors to the UAE who are not of the Muslim faith may feel unsure about how to act during the Holy Month of Ramadan. Although general cultural norms for entering a Muslim country may be straightforward, visitors should take additional steps during Ramadan to ensure they are showing respect.
What is Ramadan?
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, and its start date varies by approximately 10 days each year according to the Hijri calendar. In 2023, Ramadan 1444 will take place in March/April, with the precise start date verified by the moon sighting committee.
Saum, one of the Five Pillars of Worship in Islam, involves fasting during this sacred month. Muslims must refrain from eating and drinking (among other things) from sunrise to sunset, in order to cultivate self-awareness, patience, and tolerance. The act of fasting is believed to purify the soul of negative influences and strengthen a person’s faith in Allah.
What do non-Muslim tourists and residents have to watch out for during Ramadan in Dubai?
During Ramadan, non-Muslim ex-pat citizens and travelers in the UAE have a responsibility to create a suitable atmosphere for Muslims to observe their holy month. Although they are not required to fast, they should demonstrate respect for those who do by following appropriate conduct.
In previous years, it was customary for restaurants and cafes to obtain licenses to operate during daylight hours in Ramadan, and to block out their visible dining areas with screens or partitions to avoid offending those who are fasting.
However, the Dubai Department of Economic Development (Dubai Economy) issued a circular in April 2021, stating that restaurants in the emirate would no longer be required to screen their visual dining places during fasting hours in Ramadan 1442. This policy continued in 2022, and it is expected that dining areas will no longer be partitioned or screened in the future.
Despite this change, it is still socially unacceptable, if not illegal, to eat or drink in public during fasting hours. However, hotels and shopping malls continue to serve food and drink during Ramadan, and visitors and residents can partake of these offerings while being mindful of their surroundings.
What about children during Ramadan in Dubai?
It is not expected for children below the age of six to participate in the Muslim fast during Ramadan, regardless of their religion. Children aged seven to twelve, who have reached the pre-pubescent stage, may start observing the fast for shorter periods of time. However, upon reaching puberty, fasting is mandatory for all Muslims, with some exceptions.
During Ramadan, schools in Dubai usually have shorter opening hours, and some may start later and finish earlier. Extra-curricular activities are usually canceled. Nursery schools and playgroups may also have reduced hours during this period. However, young children should be freely fed when they are hungry and dressed appropriately for the weather.
Exceptions to Fasting
Muslims may be allowed to refrain from fasting if they are pregnant, diabetic, breastfeeding, menstruating, sick, or of old age, among other circumstances. The primary consideration is that the fast should not adversely affect their health.
If you are a non-Muslim who is pregnant or breastfeeding, you should refrain from openly eating or drinking in public during Ramadan, as should children between the ages of six and 12. Although it may be permissible, even Muslims tend to eat and drink discreetly and in private during fasting hours.
If you are passing through one of the UAE’s major international airports, you will notice that food services are operating normally, as travelers are free from fasting (Muslims will create up any missed fasting days at a later date).
Breaking of the fast – Iftar in Dubai
The firing of a cannon at maghrib, the time of sunset prayer, marks the end of the day’s fast, and the sound of azan resonates from the loudspeakers of mosques. This tradition has been upheld in Dubai since the 1960s, with five cannons fired at designated locations, including Burj Park, Eid prayer grounds in Al Mankhool and Al Baraha, Madinat Jumeirah, and Dubai City Walk.
Iftar, the meal taken immediately after sunset, signifies the breaking of the fast. Families come together to enjoy a meal, starting with a quick snack of water and dates before prayers, followed by a larger meal.
During Ramadan, many hotels in Dubai offer extravagant buffet meals and Ramadan dining tents. Although these were reduced or canceled in 2020 and 2021, full hospitality for Ramadan returned in 2022. Participating in Iftar celebrations can provide a unique and memorable experience for tourists.
The Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding organizes the Ramadan Iftar Program in the Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood, offering visitors the opportunity to join local hosts for Arabic Coffee and dates, experience Iftar, and visit the Diwan Mosque.
When is Iftar in Dubai?
The timing of Iftar can vary depending on the location as it coincides with the sunset time of that specific place. Although the cannon firing is traditionally used to mark the start of Iftar, it is possible to estimate the time based on when Maghrib occurs. It’s important to note that the Iftar time in Dubai is typically a few minutes earlier than in Abu Dhabi, as Dubai is located further east.
Suhoor in Dubai
The meal taken before sunrise during Ramadan is known as Suhoor. It is the last meal taken before starting the fast again at sunrise. Many hotels offer Suhoor on a grand scale, with some even starting to serve it as soon as Iftar is cleared and lasting throughout the night.
Lailat Qadr, also known as the Night of Power, is a significant event in Ramadan as it marks the first revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad by Allah. The exact date of Lailat Qadr is uncertain, but it is believed to fall on an odd date during the last 10 days of Ramadan, a time when prayer and worship become more intense for many Muslims.
Although the exact date may vary, the night of observation is commonly accepted to be the 27th night of Ramadan. In 2023, this falls on April 18th. It is important for tourists to be aware of this as it is considered the holiest night of the year for Muslims. While it is not a public holiday in the UAE, it is a significant event that is highly respected and observed by Muslims around the world.