The Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins on 18th June, which means significant changes to business practices in Muslim countries across the Middle East. Muslims and non-Muslims alike are affected by these changes, and for non-Muslims there are common courtesy considerations to bear in mind with respect to Muslim colleagues and clients.
Shorter working days and no food and drink in public
In the Middle East a reduction in business hours of operation is probably the most notable change during Ramadan. The working day is reduced by two hours by government stipulation for both Muslim and non-Muslim workers in Qatar and the UAE.
Government and Authority offices including banks will usually work different hours compared to private companies, which will be permitted to operate for a maximum of five or six hours per day. Some Government offices and banks will specify evening opening periods.
Muslims spend a large part of their days during Ramadan in prayer, and in Saudi Arabia for example, many shops and offices will shut numerous times throughout the day to allow for prayers.
Food and beverage outlets (aside from those in big hotels) are closed during the day and business lunch and dinner events should not take place as it is illegal to eat, drink, smoke or chew gum in public until sundown. By law in the Middle East, even the inside of your car or office is considered a “public place” and therefore off limits for food and drink.
It is important to be discreet when eating or drinking at work, and if possible, always go to a private or closed room. This extends to birthday celebrations or office events; it is considered inappropriate to bring cake or other food items into the office in full view of those who might be fasting.
While no business dinners should take place, Iftar (dusk) or Suhoor (3 hours after Iftar and later) events are often arranged by companies. Business Iftars are normally scheduled for the third or fourth week of Ramadan as the first few weeks are dedicated to breaking the fast with family.
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With shorter working hours, a lack of food and water for those who are fasting and temperatures around 50 degrees Celsius, business does tend to slow down during Ramadan. In addition, you may find that many executives, company signatories and decision makers take leave during Ramadan and therefore things may take longer to be approved or finalised. But business can still be done in the Middle East, it just takes a little extra time, consideration and understanding.
Common courtesies are important
As Ramadan is a period for reflection, contemplation and prayer there is a ban on all live music and entertainment in some parts of the Middle East. It is also considered offensive to play music loudly in your car or so that others can hear it.
More conservative attire should be worn when you are interacting with Muslim colleagues or clients. Ensure you cover your shoulders and legs; this is enforced by local laws.
It is common for Muslim colleagues to extend invitations to attend Iftars (breaking of the fast) with their family and friends. These invitations are a sign of trust and friendship, and acceptance is advised.
While business slows down a little during Ramadan it is a great time for companies to focus on building strong relationships with contacts in the Middle East as it is one of the keys to business success in the region.
Stephanie Williams is based in Dubai and manages TMF Group’s Legal and Governance team in Dubai and Qatar. Originally from Dublin, Stephanie has spent over twenty years in the Middle East living in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates and now Dubai.