Business culture during Ramadan: a Dutchman in Doha

TMF Qatar Commercial Director Lennart Bottenberg provides a little insight into what it's like being a westerner in Doha over Ramadan.

Life slows down a bit here in the Middle East during Ramadan. Private companies such as TMF Group can set their own hours, but local law stipulates that employees should work two hours less per day, often resulting in shortened overall office hours. Some government institutions open earlier, and close much earlier in the afternoon.

Construction companies (of which there are many in Qatar) will work from either very early in the morning or solely at night; a combination of Ramadan and the oppressive heat over summer making this necessary. The fasting period falls during the hotter parts of the year (Muslims follow the lunar calendar and the start of Ramadan moves back by 10 days each year) and it is extremely difficult to not drink water to combat the 38-50 degree (Celsius) heat.

A change in routine

There are changes to my usual work routine as all of my favourite coffee and food stops are closed. You will still find some restaurants open in Doha for a lunch rendezvous with a western client, but windows will be covered, and you do need to know where to go. While it is completely fine to be consuming food and drink with fellow westerners during the day, it must be done in a private place.

I find I tend to eat more in the privacy of my home anyway, as we work to a no food policy in the TMF Group office. The majority of our staff in Qatar are not Muslim, but we have consulted with them regarding appropriate interactions during Ramadan, as it is a basic courtesy after all. I have worked in companies where the policy has varied; some will put up screens in designated places for non-Muslim staff to eat their lunch behind. It does depend a bit on company culture and in what sector you are working.

Experiencing traditions

Attending a breaking of the fast known as Iftar is an experience that I highly recommend, if you are ever fortunate enough to receive an invitation. The Arab people are very inviting, so much so in fact that it is not uncommon for them to send large amounts of food to their western friends in the evening over the holy month.

In the late evenings during the fourth week of Ramadan (as prior weeks are dedicated to family and friends) it is normal for companies to hold business networking events and many firms will arrange an Iftar or Suhoor (the pre-dawn meal). We do talk business, but it is generally kept to the second part of the evening as in the first instance it is polite and respectful to focus on having a nice meal together. The friendly atmosphere at these gatherings is really wonderful.

While life (and to a degree business) slows down, the roads can be a little hectic at this time and so I do need to schedule any offsite meetings carefully. There is a peak hour in the middle of the day as Muslims attend prayers at the Mosques, and in the evening understandably everyone wants to get home to their families to break their fast.

Some aspects of business is quiet in the Middle East during Ramadan but work does still get done. And I have found it to be a great time of year to work on strengthening personal ties with my Muslim colleagues and clients.

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