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RAMADAN: How to do business in the Middle East during the holiest month

05 May 2018
UAE

Cultural awareness is recommended whenever you’re doing business outside of your home country - even small things can make a big difference to your relationships - but when it comes to the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, knowing the culture is essential if you want to continue to thrive, explains Ocorian's Brian Carey.

Ramadan is the most holy month for Muslims and it’s almost upon us. While the precise time of its start won’t be known until the new moon is sighted, it’s expected to begin around 15 May. This is a month of reflection and fasting during daylight hours, when Muslims cannot eat, drink, or smoke while there is light in the sky, all as a sign of faith. Suffice to say, this has a huge impact not only on personal lives, but on professional ones as well. With workers staying up late to break their fast, and getting up early so they can eat before daybreak, office hours are usually significantly reduced during Ramadan - most businesses will close around 2pm.

Economist Samer Sunnuqrot estimates the productivity of workers declines in the holy month by 35-50% as a result of shorter working hours and the change in behaviour. Government institutions and the public sector can all but shut down for the month, while private sector bodies often delay important decisions to a time when everyone is operating as normal. It’s advisable to check expected hours of operation of any organisation you regularly communicate with.

Ramadan can also impact regional markets and daily trading has reduced below average in previous years.

But what does this mean for a non-faster trying to do business in the Middle East during this most holy of months?

  1. Keep business to the morning: try to schedule meetings or necessary calls for the first half of the day, closer to sunrise. Your Muslim colleagues and clients will be less focussed on when they can next eat or drink, and you’ll get more done.
  2. Ditch the lunch and coffee meetings: While non-Muslims do not need to take part in the fasting, it’s culturally sensitive to not eat or drink in front of someone who is fasting. This includes refusing a drink if offered by a Muslim; they will offer to be polite, but it’s also polite for you to decline.
  3. Have a separate space in the office for non-fasting colleagues to eat: Just as many restaurants and cafes will remain open during the day but have a closed-off area away from the eyes of fasters, you should do the same in your office. Don’t eat your delicious-smelling food at your desk; find somewhere you won’t be tempting colleagues who are observing Ramadan.
  4. Dress and behave modestly: Even more so than at other times, it’s a mark of respect to dress and behave modestly during this most holy of seasons. Women should wear high necklines, while all should avoid shorts, short skirts and sleeveless attire. Women should also not reach out for a handshake with a man; wait to see if he extends his hand first. Elsewhere, ensure no loud music is played in public (including sound leakage from headphones), and it goes without saying no food or drink should be consumed in public.
  5. Extend greetings of the season: It’s a period of reflection and of celebration surrounded by loved ones, so you should extend greetings of the season during Ramadan. Whether it’s a handwritten card, a gift basket or homemade traditional sweets - or, indeed, graphics shared on social media - ensure you wish “Ramadan mubarak” to your network.
  6. Join Iftars and Suhoors if asked: And finally, being asked to attend an Iftar is an incredible honour, a sign of trust and respect, and an offer you should absolutely accept. Iftar is when Muslims break the fast at the end of the day, and is a celebration observed with family and friends. Many business people use the Iftar the same as they would a lunch meeting during other months - a place to relax and get to know each other while also building the relationship. Likewise, organising an Iftar for your office or colleagues can be a great way to bond and increase awareness. Some business people prefer to organise a Suhoor for their office; this is the first meal of the day, before sunrise and before the day’s fast begins.

Ramadan finishes with the holiday of Eid al-Fitr. Many businesses and countries mark this with official holidays, and there is normally a lot of activity as people traditionally visit families to celebrate. It’s also a time for exchanging gifts and being with family and friends. Eid can last anywhere from three to 10 days, depending on which country you are in. Expect it to be a total shutdown wherever you are.

While Ramadan and Eid are exciting times to be in the Middle East, they are also times you should not count on getting major decisions made. Focus on the corporate and organisational aspects of your business that you might not normally have time for - like research and development, strategic planning, employee growth, and so on - and plan ahead to ready yourself for business as usual after Eid before the heat of the summer descends upon the region.