As Muslims around the world prepare to celebrate the month of Ramadan, I’m reminded of our very first Ramadan in Dubai. It was July 2013. Tiago and I had just moved there from Lisbon not knowing what to expect. Living in a hotel room, we were frustrated trying to find our way around town, hungry and bumping into closed restaurants everywhere. And we definitely weren’t prepared to endure Dubai’s epic heat levels while apartment hunting without having so much as a sip of water. We wanted to be respectful of local culture but we felt a bit overwhelmed.
Many people will tell you to avoid visiting Dubai during Ramadan. I might have told you the same thing myself back in 2013. But with each passing year I learned to appreciate this month more and more. And I believe you can too. To help you make the most out of this special time, here is everything you need to know about Ramadan in Dubai: Dos and Don’ts.
1. Don’t eat or drink in public before sundown
Muslims abstain from eating, drinking and smoking from sunrise to sunset during the month of Ramadan. Although non-muslims aren’t required to fast, doing any of those things in public is prohibited (even chewing gum!). Eating in private may be more challenging when you’re on vacation and can’t cook your own food at home, but not to worry. Though it may seem like most restaurants and cafes are closed, in fact many remain open to cater to expats and tourists, especially in hotels and office buildings. You’ll eat behind a curtain. Here is a list of restaurants that will be open for lunch this year.
Be aware that your car is considered a public place, so don’t drink or eat while stuck in traffic. And be careful not to venture out much in the heat or you’ll risk dehydration. Instead, opt for indoor activities, visit one of Dubai’s huge malls, enjoy a day at the spa or lounging by the pool.
2. Do go to an iftar dinner
Iftar is the meal after sunset during Ramadan which Muslims share with friends and family. They will often break their fast with a few dates, followed by a massive buffet dinner. Pretty much all restaurants serve an iftar buffet and they are usually packed full, so make sure you have a reservation. There are also special tents set up around town serving iftar with more of a community feel and this is an excellent opportunity to take part in this tradition. Non-muslims are welcome to attend iftar. Here is a list featuring some of 2017 most luxurious tents.
3. Don’t engage in PDA
This is actually a year round advice but it’s especially important that you follow it during Ramadan. You should always make an effort to respect local culture and PDA in Dubai is a no-go. You’ll see plenty of western couples holding hands in public, but that’s pretty much the extent of it (or it should be!).
4. Do dress conservatively
If you go to Dubai at any other time of the year, you’ll find plenty of people dressed like in your standard Western country, especially in expat heavy areas like Dubai Marina or Downtown. This is somewhat frown upon all year (you’ll see the signs at the mall entries!) but it’s also an absolute no-go during Ramadan. Be respectful. Leave the miniskirts and that blouse with the huge cleavage at home. Make an effort to wear clothes that aren’t too tight or too revealing, that covers your shoulders and knees.
5. Don’t listen to loud music
This is once again about respecting the local culture and this special time of the year for Muslims. It’s a time of reflection, prayer and community which requires some peace and quiet. Some bars and clubs will close for the month of Ramadan. Restaurants may not serve alcohol or play music. You should refrain from playing loud music too, be it in your rental car or hotel room. Keep it respectfully down.
6. Do learn about Emirati culture
Joining an iftar for the great Middle Eastern food is fine. But take it one step further and take advantage of the season to learn a bit more about Emirate culture. One great way of doing this is through the SSMCCU, which provides tours of the Al Fahidi District, Jumeirah Mosque, and cultural meals where you get to try Emirati cuisine while speaking to locals. Contrary to most Western nations, speaking openly about religion and life’s biggest questions is very common in Dubai. As a Christian, I’ve had many interesting conversations with Muslims (strangers and friends!) about our different faiths.
7. Don’t drive during rush hour
This one isn’t a culture faux-pas, it’s more for your own safety. Dubai has special combination of dangerous drivers and incredibly fast cars, which results in one of the highest road mortality rates in the world. Now add hungry drivers in a hurry to get to an iftar to the mix and the driving becomes even more erratic. Do your best to get your destination well before sundown.
8. Do take the time to reflect
As said before, this is a time when the whole city will be in a reflective state and in a generous, giving mood. Why not take this time to contemplate the important things in your life? And feel free to join one of the many volunteering opportunities available. Dubai may seem all glitz and gold but many people struggle in the city, particularly the workers who built the luxury hotel you’re probably staying in.
During this month all places will have different hours of operation, including the subway, public services, banks, restaurants and malls. These last two stay open until much later than usual to serve suhoor, the meal Muslims have before sunrise. Just embrace it. Do it like the locals and become and night owl for the month!
Much more could be said but I hope by now you’re already pretty excited to spend Ramadan in Dubai.
The featured image is of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque which is in Abu Dhabi, not Dubai. We recommend you do the day trip to visit. Some say it’s even more beautiful than the Taj Mahal. Photo credit.