What is Ramadan in Dubai really like?

I’m ashamed to admit I knew almost nothing about Ramadan before moving to Dubai.

This year, Ramadan began on May 27. The start date is based on the first sighting of the new crescent moon, which signals the ninth (and holiest) month of the Islamic calendar. There’s a special “moon sighting committee”, and once they make the call, Ramadan begins the next day.

When I got here, I quickly learned many expats choose to escape Dubai during this time – not only because it starts to get unbearably hot, but also because everything slows right down, as the city takes some time out for quiet reflection.

Fasting is the most well-known aspect of Ramadan. Most Muslims (except those who are elderly, sick, travelling, menstruating or pregnant) abstain from eating and drinking between sunrise and sunset for the entire Holy Month.

It’s illegal for anyone to be seen eating (that includes chewing gum) or drinking in public during daytime hours throughout Ramadan, regardless of whether you’re fasting or not. A sip of water in the wrong place at the wrong time could land you up to one month in jail, or a AED 2000 fine.

But it’s not as strict as it sounds. Dubai is a highly tolerant, cosmopolitan city, and more than 100 restaurants, cafes and food courts remain open during the day to cater to the non-fasting crowd – albeit with blacked-out windows and screens to keep them respectfully out of sight. If you order a takeaway coffee, expect to have it handed to you in a brown paper bag, prohibition-style.

In the workplace, there will be a designated room where you can eat and drink away from your fasting colleagues. In my office it’s the kitchen, and they’ve covered the glass door with paper so you can’t see inside.

Under UAE labour laws, working hours are reduced by two hours a day during Ramadan, for both Muslims and non-Muslims. This means my work day is currently 9am to 4pm – something I’m not entirely upset about.

Charity is another huge part of the Holy Month – and Islam in general – and there are all sorts of initiatives that pop up over Ramadan encouraging people to donate time or money to various causes. One of the coolest ones is a fridge sharing concept, where people set up fridges in public places and keep them filled with water and snacks so labourers and others in need can help themselves when it’s time to break the fast.

Iftar is the meal served after sunset, and friends and families usually gather to break the fast together. Many hotels and restaurants put on flashy iftar banquets, and they are honestly some of the most lavish feasts you will ever experience (more on them later). Then there’s suhoor, the pre-dawn meal before fasting starts all over again.

Tomorrow night, I’m doing a special Ramadan walking tour with Unseen Trails – a joint venture between Gulf Photo Plus and Frying Pan Adventures (I’ve heard their food tours are amazing). We’re heading into one of Dubai’s oldest neighbourhoods, and joining a communal iftar at a local mosque. I’m really looking forward to it, and hope it will give me a true taste of Ramadan is all about…

PS. I know the main picture (Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque) is in Abu Dhabi, not Dubai… but I haven’t been to Jumeirah Mosque yet!

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