Business culture during Ramadan: an Irish expat in the Middle East

TMF UAE's Director - Legal and Governance Stephanie Williams shares her perspective as an Irish expat in the Middle East during Ramadan.

Having first moved to the Middle in East in the mid-1990s, I am very culturally aware and probably a bit over sensitive. 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 is much more liberal, with a more relaxed attitude towards the imposing of Islamic values. There are regulations on respectful attire for example but there is a relaxed attitude the enforcement of these.

A top tourist destination, we have some impressive bars and clubs, the famous Dubai Friday ‘Brunches’ and endless entertainment options – Dubai is a city that doesn’t sleep! During Ramadan however, things change, as the Holy Month is observed the regulations and laws with the UAE are more strictly applied and certain restrictions enforced.

But how does this affect me as an expat in Dubai?

Sustenance

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 for me, no eating out at lunch and remembering to conceal that bottle of water on the way the gym. It sounds like hardship for those who are not fasting but it isn’t that difficult (although I’m not a smoker).

In recent years there have been more outlets opening during the day with special permits, as long as they are concealed from view from the outside. Some food delivery options also remain available. Many offices have private kitchen areas where employees can eat or drink, and with our working hours shortened by two hours per day by law, you can head home to eat in private.

We also have to be more careful about offering refreshments to visitors or guests to our office, it's always best to ask if someone is fasting. Living in a very multicultural city means you can never judge who might or might not be practicing.

The most important thing is to be respectful of others who may be fasting and ensure that you do not offend anyone.

Working hours

With shorter working hours enforced for public and private sector businesses, business does tend to slow down during Ramadan. Lack of food and water and different sleeping patterns, 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 40 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 appear to move more slowly and at a slower pace as deals take longer to be approved or finalised.

Attire

As a woman, I am always very sensitive to the dress code ‘regulations’ living in a Arab country, particularly if I am going to the mall for example where shoulders and knees (both men and women) should be covered. During Ramadan 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.

Entertainment

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

Ramadan 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 some enforced imposition is 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 break of 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.

The town comes alive at night with restaurants, malls and shops open until the small hours. There is a sense of celebration as the weeks of Ramadan build towards the Eid holiday and the festivities that ensue.

Ramadan Kareem!  

A version of this blog was originally published in HRreview.

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