Q&A Guide for Non-Muslims Visiting the UAE During the Holy Month of Ramadan
One of the big areas of concern some visitors and newcomers to the UAE have is the observance of the Holy Month of Ramadan.
It can be confusing if you are new to Islam and have never experienced Ramadan before. No one wants to offend anyone in their host country deliberately, so there are just a few things we can do as visitors and expats living in the UAE to show respect and understanding at this time of year.
Ramadan 1444 will start on 23 March 2023 – Confirmed by the moonsighting committee on the evening of 21 March 2023
This guide was first published in 2015, and we have been updating it annually with changes that residents & visitors should be aware of.
What is Ramadan?
Ramadan is the 9th month of the lunar calendar. One of the five Acts of Worship (or “Pillars”) of Islam is fasting during this holy month. Muslims must abstain from eating and drinking (among other things) between sunrise and sunset to teach themselves self-awareness, patience and tolerance. It is said the soul is purified of evil influence and a person’s faith in Allah becomes stronger.
Following the Hijri calendar, the start date of Ramadan is approximately 10 days earlier each year on the Gregorian calendar. In 2022 Ramadan will fall over April/May – approaching a hotter time of the year in the Middle East with long days, though no longer falling over the peak of summer.
The exact start date is confirmed by the moon sighting committee. In different parts of the world, the new crescent moon may be sighted earlier meaning Ramadan is observed on different Gregorian dates depending on where you live.
The Saudi Arabia and UAE moon sighting committees have yet to meet for 1444 (2023) to confirm the start date of Ramadan this year in the UAE. Once announced, the month of Ramadan lasts for 29 to 30 days.
Ramadan in the UAE: What do non-Muslims need to observe?
Expats and visitors are responsible for making sure there is a suitable environment for Muslims to observe Ramadan. Although you are not expected to join in with the fasting, you must show respect to those who are through your conduct and make sure your family members understand and are aware of what is expected.
Accordingly, eating, drinking, and smoking in public by adults is prohibited during the Holy Month.
This is not to say you can’t get a feed during the day; in fact, an increasing number of establishments are now open for either take away only or dining in is permitted.
You will find that only a handful of dining establishments are completely shut during the day as permits to serve food during Ramadan is no longer required. All hotels will have dining areas that remain open throughout the day.
PLEASE NOTE: Rules on dining establishments needing to close during the day or curtain areas off for non-Muslim diners have largely been abolished in every Emirate.
Dubai Department of Economic Development (Dubai Economy) issued a circular on 11 April 2021 stating that restaurants in Dubai emirate will not have to screen visible dining areas during fasting hours in the Holy Month of Ramadan 1442 – learn more about Ramadan in Dubai here.
On 6 April 2021, The Department of Culture and Tourism in Abu Dhabi allowed tourist and hotel establishments to provide catering services during Ramadan without installing curtains or partitions – learn more about Ramadan in Abu Dhabi here.
This does not mean you can eat and drink anywhere in public! Fines still exist in law; we’d urge you to err on the side of caution and only eat in public within a registered dining establishment.
In the privacy of your own home, you can do as you please. However, be mindful of what is private, eg can you still be seen on a balcony or in your yard? NB Inside your car out on the road is not considered private.
What about children observing Ramadan?
Younger children, especially those under six years old, are not expected to participate in fasting. Pre-pubescent children between seven and 12 years old may start to observe fasting for short periods at a time. On reaching puberty, participation by all Muslims (some exceptions I’ll mention below) is required.
Now that Ramadan falls over school term time, it’s important that school students of all ages understand and respect fasting. Non-Muslim children are not asked to participate, but they may be asked to eat lunch in a designated school area.
Schools will also start later and finish earlier; individual schools will advise opening hours but are normally restricted to a maximum of 5-hour days. In 2023, ADEK has advised that schools must not open before 9:00 AM and must close by 3:30 PM, with a maximum of 4-5 hours teaching time.
After-school clubs are variable depending on who is operating them. Times may be adjusted, or they may stop altogether.
You should see no change for younger children who attend nursery or playgroups, though hours may be reduced. You should freely be able to feed young children when they are hungry and dress them as appropriate for the weather.
Are there any other exceptions to fasting?
There are several circumstances under which a Muslim can be exempted from fasting, including if you are pregnant, diabetic, breastfeeding, menstruating, sick, or of old age; the basic premise is you should not participate if it’s detrimental to your health.
For a non-Muslim who is pregnant or breastfeeding, you should still avoid eating or drinking in public; likewise, for children between six and 12 years, it may be allowed, but even Muslims will do this in a discreet and private way so as not to offend others.
If you are travelling through one of the country’s major international airports, you will see full food services operating as there are exemptions for travellers (although Muslims travelling will need to make up any days while travelling later on).
Ramadan in the UAE -What is Iftar & Suhoor?
Iftar is literally the breaking of the fast, the meal taken immediately after sunset. This is a time for families to come together and eat a meal. Usually, an immediate snack of water and dates is taken before prayers, followed by a large meal.
Many of the hotels in the UAE now put together quite extravagant Iftar buffets and open Ramadan dining tents. You may be invited to join these celebrations with friends and neighbours, and it is polite to accept; you can, of course, attend one of these on your own to join in the experience.
Whilst tents and large gatherings were banned in 2020 and 2021 due to COVID-19 restrictions, they were back bigger and better than ever in 2022, and you’ll find fabulous buffet feasts have again returned for 2023.
Suhoor is the meal taken immediately before sunrise, and fasting commences for a new day. Again, many hotels also provide suhoor (often, surprisingly, as soon as plates are cleared from Iftar!).
- You can find a detailed guide to the best Suhoor in Abu Dhabi here.
SMCCU Ramadan Iftar Program
If you would like to learn more during Ramadan on the cultures and traditions of Ramadan and iftar, we strongly urge you to book an Iftar experience with SMCCU (Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding) in Dubai’s Al Faihidi Historical District.
- From March 25, 2023, to April 19, 2023
- 6:30 pm to 9:00 pm
- AED 195 per person
- AED 95 for Children between 7-12 years (under 6 free)
Other things to be mindful of during Ramadan
Ramadan is not only about food for Muslims, but it is also about abstention – including tobacco, sex, and music – and tolerance.
Hold fire on any public displays of affection, avoid kissing, and even hand-holding between grown-ups (with your child is fine).
Appropriate dress standards must be observed in public (much more stringently enforced than usual). All grown-ups (including teens) should be dressed conservatively and look to have arms and legs covered in public – and certainly avoid bathers, cleavage, and tight clothing; this is not the month to book your bikini-clad hotel resort retreat.
Speaking of resorts, some Emirates are laxer than others regarding resort settings. Ras Al Khaimah resorts, for example, have still served food and drinks during the day for many years.
In Fujairah, we’ve stayed at adjoining resorts in Ramadan, where one was playing music and serving food at the pool bar, whilst the neighbouring hotel was strictly no outdoor F&B service until Iftar (even this has changed now – friends went in 2022, and said ALL Fujairah resorts were serving during Ramadan)
You’ll need to enquire on a case-by-case basis. This is one area that has changed significantly over the twelve Ramadans we’ve personally experienced across all 7 Emirates.
In that hour or so before sunset and Iftar, the patience of many is strongly tested, and you may experience some erratic driving. It is best to steer clear of the roads, and if going for your evening meal, be mindful of letting others who might need it more go before you (I did notice last year that food courts started opening pre-Iftar).
It is a time for peace and giving, so try to avoid shouting and anger, and especially no rude words or gestures.
Most workplaces will modify working hours throughout the holy month to accommodate the needs of those fasting. You may also find shops have very different opening times, with many closed all day and open through most of the night.
Major supermarkets and Malls can even be open 24 hours a day! You should have no problem finding an open supermarket throughout the day for groceries; you obviously just cannot consume anything until you get home.
Government departments DO continue to operate throughout Ramadan but expect things to slow down with reduced working hours. If you are waiting for Visas or the like to be processed, this may be impacted.
Ramadan in the UAE – What is Eid?
To prevent any confusion, there are two Eid celebrations!
Eid al-Fitr is the festival of the breaking of the fast, occurring immediately after Ramadan. It is a time of festivities and daytime feasts for Muslim families; also, when people dress in their new Eid clothes, ladies will have their hair and henna done, and gift-giving occurs, among other celebrations.
It is a very busy time in the country and a public holiday – usually three days, but for Government departments, this may be extended to a week.
See this full account of what to expect at Eid-ul-Fitr by guest blogger Zeyna.
Eid al-Fitr is likely to commence on 21 April 2023 (Subject to moon sighting).
Charity or Zakat, another of the five pillars of Islam, is considered very important during Eid celebrations, giving and thoughtfulness to those less fortunate. You may see several white tents popping up all over town even before Ramadan starts; these are for making donations to the needy – it can be a good way to get your children involved in Ramadan and understand the importance of giving.
Eid al-Adha, which is approximately 70 days after the end of Ramadan, literally translates to “the festival of the sacrifice”. Arafat Day falls first, on the second day of Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca – the 9th Day of Dhu Al Hijja on the Hijri calendar.
This is immediately followed by Eid al-Adha. Animals such as sheep or goats are sacrificed and tradition dictates a third is eaten by the family, a third is given to relatives and friends and a third is given to the needy.
This is another three to four-day public holiday though can be extended to a week also for Government departments and schools (always announced very last minute).
Zeyna has also provided us with this account of what Eid-ul-Adha means to her family here in the UAE.
This year Arafat day is due to occur on 27 June, and Eid al-Adha is due to commence on 28 June 2023 (Subject to moon sighting).
Looking to take a short escape over the Eid breaks? Check out this guide to Eid Vacations
It’s all about respect.
For non-Muslim expats, Ramadan can be a complex and confusing time of year (and many will exit the country during this time).
It is a time of year that the Muslims I have spoken to genuinely look forward to. You may find this a more culturally enriching time to visit the country, though bear in mind that much is shut during the day.
Remember to park any opinions you may have about whether it is “right” or “healthy” or any other beliefs contrary to the Pillars of Islam; whether you are a visitor or an expatriate resident, you are a guest, and these are the rules that must be observed.
Anyone caught eating, drinking, smoking, or being disrespectful could be fined or arrested if they do not heed warnings. (Maximum fine is 2,000dhs or 1-month imprisonment).
However, do see our note above that rules seem to be changing. Restaurants no longer appear to need licenses to serve during Ramadan or to blackout windows, so this questions the validity of this law (which, as far as we know, still hasn’t actually been repealed for non-Muslims, despite common practice).
More resources for Ramadan
- Visiting Qatar during Ramadan? Jump over to Wandermust Family, former expats in Doha who have prepared a similar guide on expectations during Ramadan for visitors.
- Expat Tone from The Other Trail shares ways that non-Muslims can still get involved and enjoy Ramadan in Oman.
- Read these 6 Children’s books about Ramadan thanks to InCultureParent.
- Want to involve your kids in Ramadan crafts, customs, and activities?
We also have a new guide to cultural activities in the UAE.
If you are new to the UAE and looking for what to do over the summer, come check out our Summer Survival Guide, Abu Dhabi’s Best Indoor Activities and our Mega list of 100+ things to do in the UAE!
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