Q&A Guide for Non-Muslims Visitors during Ramadan
One of the big areas of concern for non-Muslim visitors to the UAE is how to behave during the Holy Month of Ramadan.
Whilst the basic cultural behaviours for entering a Muslim country can be easy to grasp, there are a few extra steps that visitors need to take during Ramadan in Abu Dhabi to ensure they are being respectful.
What is Ramadan?
Ramadan is the 9th month of the lunar calendar. Following the Hijri calendar, the start date of Ramadan is approximately 10 days earlier each year on the Gregorian calendar. In 2020 Ramadan will fall over April/May, the exact start date is confirmed by the moon sighting committee.
The likely dates Ramadan will fall this year are sunset 23 April 2020 to 23 May 2020.
One of the Five Pillars of Worship of Islam – Saum – 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.
If you are visiting in future years, this is a good source for finding when Islamic holidays will fall:
What do non-Muslims tourists & residents in Abu Dhabi need to observe during Ramadan?
Non-Muslim expat residents 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.
Eating, drinking and smoking in public by adults during Ramadan is prohibited.
HOWEVER, contrary to laws that carry fines of up to 2000AED for eating in public during Ramadan, general practise in Abu Dhabi has significantly changed over the last two years. Eating establishments previously needed licenses to operate during daylight hours of Ramadan, and blacked-out windows. These requirements during Ramadan 2019 seemed to have all but ceased completely – with dining establishments even asked to remove their blackout curtains, customers would not be fined.
We are waiting for confirmation as to the legal status now of eating and drinking in public during Ramadan 2020.
Undoubtedly, you are still able to obtain food and drink in hotels and shopping malls in Abu Dhabi during Ramadan (This wasn’t always the case – careful of following outdated information on this). Walking around eating and drinking in public is most definitely socially unacceptable, if not still illegal.
In the privacy of your own home or hotel room, you can do as you please.
What about children during Ramadan in Abu Dhabi?
Younger children, especially those under six years old are not expected to participate in fasting Muslim and Non-Muslim. 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 mentioned below) is required.
Schools in Abu Dhabi will start later and finish earlier during Ramadan. Opening hours will be advised by individual schools but are normally restricted to a maximum of 6 hour days.
For younger children who attend nursery or playgroups, you should see no change, though hours may be reduced. You should freely be able to feed a young child when they are hungry and dress them as appropriate for the weather.
Exceptions to fasting
There are many 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 travellers are exempt from fasting (Muslims will make up any fasting days while travelling on a later date).
Breaking of the fast – Iftar
The fast is broken at maghrib (the sunset prayer time) by the firing of a cannon (midfa al iftar). This is followed by the sound of azan echoing from the loud-speaker of a mosque.
In Abu Dhabi, the cannon is fired from the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.
If you are also visiting Dubai during Ramadan, you can capture the cannon being fired at 5 locations; Burj Park (with Burj Khalifa as your backdrop), Eid prayer grounds in Al Mankhool and Al Baraha, Madinat Jumeirah and at Dubai City Walk.
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 Abu Dhabi will put together huge buffet extravaganzas and Ramadan dining tents. it is an incredibly unique experience to join in with Iftar celebrations.
Our 2020 Abu Dhabi Iftar Guide coming soon! [NB MANY IFTARS IN ABU DHABI MAY BE CANCELLED IN 2020 DUE TO ONGOING COVID-19 PREVENTION MEASURES]
When is Iftar in Abu Dhabi?
Iftar timing varies by city as it occurs at sunset for that exact location. Whilst the cannon is considered the official time, you can estimate the likely time based on when is Maghrib. (NB Abu Dhabi is always a few minutes later than Dubai as it is further west).
As the fast begins again at sunrise, Suhoor is the meal taken immediately before sunrise. Again, many hotels will provide suhoor on a grand scale, some starting suhoor offering from as soon as iftar is cleared and lasting throughout the night.
You will notice Abu Dhabi can become an all-night culture during Ramadan.
Other things to be mindful of during Ramadan in Abu Dhabi
Ramadan is not only about food, for Muslims, but it is also about abstention – including tobacco, sex, music – and tolerance.
Appropriate dress standard 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 cleavage and tight clothing. This said, just as dining rules have relaxed in recent years, it seems so have clothing rules.
Hold fire on any public displays of affection, avoid kissing, even hand-holding between grown-ups (with your child is fine).
In that hour or so before sunset and Iftar, the patience of many is strongly tested and you may experience some erratic driving. 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.
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.
Eid in Abu Dhabi explained
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 will 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 Abu Dhabi and also a public holiday – usually three days but for Government departments, this may be extended to a week.
Eid al-Fitr in Abu Dhabi is likely to commence on 24 May 2020
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 a number of 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.
“The festival of the sacrifice” occurs approximately 70 days after the end of Ramadan. 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 given to relatives and friends and a third 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)
Arafat day in Abu Dhabi is due to occur on 30 July 2020 and Eid al-Adha 31 July to 2 August 2020
Should I visit Abu Dhabi during Ramadan?
Many visitors unfamiliar with Islamic culture are understandably nervous when they work out they will be visiting the city during Ramadan. Is there anything you really should worry about?
Here we take you through some of the questions we have received over the years to put your mind at ease:
Yes and No! As we explained above you should not eat in public or in front of those who are fasting out of respect. The rules around this are changing, whereby more cafes and restaurants ARE open, but it is still respectful to remain discreet. Certainly, no day time eating walking along the street or in a car.
It is true that Muslims refrain from even drinking water, however, as a tourist, you can do so discreetly. You can drink with a meal in a designated restaurant, or during the day nipping into a bathroom or anywhere not in the public eye you can steal a sip.
There is a slightly higher standard of dress expected of tourists during Ramadan. Whilst we talk about shorts and t-shirts being fine for most of the year in our dress code advice here, during Ramadan extra effort to cover shoulders and knees should be made.
If you are staying at an Abu Dhabi resort, you will have no issue wearing your swimwear in the appropriate parts of the hotel as you would year-round.
Yes, non-Muslims are very welcome to attend an Iftar and enjoy the experience. You should dress respectfully for the occasion, and be mindful to let those who been fasting all day go first.
Another area that has evolved over the years. Non-Muslim tourists are allowed to drink in Abu Dhabi as we discuss here, however it can be a little different during Ramadan. Alcohol is unlikely to be served anywhere during the day (but bottle shops may be open, just with different hours), with service starting in bars after Iftar.
Most restaurants and certainly Ramadan tents will NOT serve alcohol with Iftar but it’s variable. If they advertise “hops & grapes” or similar wording, then it means alcohol IS included.
Travelling through the airport, alcohol used to NOT be served during the day in AUH or DXB, but we found it WAS allowed in 2019 – we’ll update if this is still the case in 2020 (if indeed these airports will reopen during Ramadan 2020).
Contrary to popular belief, most attractions in Abu Dhabi WILL remain open throughout Iftar, especially those catering to tourists including the theme parks, Mosque and Museums.
There may be variations in those opening hours though (some venues staying open until quite late at night), and it will be a lot quite than other times of the year which can certainly work to your advantage.
Ramadan Kareem or Mubarak Ramadan are both polite greetings to use.
During Ramadan, you may find cheaper flight and accommodation packages than other times of year. Although now that Ramadan is creeping into April and the peak tourism season for the UAE, this may not be the case!
It is also an incredibly joyful time of year. The city comes alive in the evenings and it truly is a time of joy and celebration for Muslims.
Final thoughts on Ramadan in Abu Dhabi
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 in the country and these are the rules that must be observed.
Before you go… Important things to consider planning a trip to Abu Dhabi
- Pop into our essential planning information page, it includes everything you need to know about getting around Abu Dhabi, a handy guide on what to pack as well as top tips for first-timers on the dos and don’ts, laws, and customs in the UAE.
- Don’t forget to pack your travel insurance!
- Discover the best places to stay in Abu Dhabi, or bag a bargain on your accommodation here: