People throughout the Arab Gulf are scaling back their celebrations of the Muslim Holy month of Ramadan this year because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Though some countries have eased the restrictions that have been in place for weeks to stop the spread of the coronavirus, people still miss the feel of Ramadan. Mosques are still closed to prayers, gatherings are not allowed, curfews are still in place even if shorter than they were, and many other activities associated with the fasting month are absent.
Nevertheless, major cities in the Arab Gulf countries have decorated the streets with Ramadan lights and symbols as usual, trying to give the impression that the current changes are temporary and Ramadan is being celebrated. Some businesses have started advertising Ramadan promotions and discounts, including grocery stores and car dealerships.
But people in the Gulf have had to give up many of their usual practices in the Holy month, and they anticipate that the end of fasting is unlikely to be the usual Eid. Despite guesses that things might change towards the end of May, it seems likely that many of the current restrictions will be part of a new normal, and going back to the same lifestyle as before the coronavirus pandemic is not likely for some time to come.
The first country in the Gulf to announce an easing of the lockdown measures was the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which has reduced the time people have to stay at home during its National Sterilisation Programme. It has also allowed shopping malls to reopen, though only at 30 per cent of capacity and with visitors strictly adhering to social-distancing rules and wearing face masks.
Before Ramadan, the programme was in place between 8pm and 6am in the UAE, except for Dubai that extended it to 24 hours. Now, the programme is in place between 10 pm and 6 am throughout the UAE.
The UAE has been able to control the spread of the virus better than many other countries, and it has carried out the highest testing rate per head of population probably anywhere in the world, exceeding a million tests so far. It has also built the second-largest test-processing lab for Covid-19 in the world, with the largest being in China.
The response from the UAE’s 10 million inhabitants to the guidance from the authorities during the pandemic has been highly positive, with fewer people flouting the rules than anywhere else in the region. However, the UAE cannot risk loosening the rules more than it has done, as this could lead to a spike of infections and deaths, wasting what has been achieved thus far in the pandemic.
The UAE has the financial means to support businesses that have been negatively affected by the lockdown, and the UAE government has provided the most generous economic support package in the region to both the public and private sector in the country.
Yet, although the streets of Abu Dhabi and Dubai are lighted with Ramadan lanterns and crescents, the usual buzz is lacking. There are no Ramadan tents where people gather for breakfast at sunset during the month. There are no majlis (seated gathering places) where prominent figures from state and society welcome citizens and residents to discuss throughout the night.
There is no tarawih, or communal prayer at the beginning of the night every night of the month. Cafés and restaurants that usually open all night during Ramadan and offer buffet meals for sohour, the pre-dawn meal in Ramadan, have all been closed. However, many hotels have started delivering buffet food to homes during the holy month.
Saudi Arabia has eased its restrictions for 20 days of Ramadan, except in the holy city of Mecca. Tarawih is allowed in a couple of mosques, but only with a very few people and then not broadcast live. Some businesses are allowed to open, but they have to follow strict rules. The same is true in the other Gulf countries, with stricter rules in countries like Oman and Kuwait.
People in the Gulf understand the seriousness of the situation, but they are hard pushed to celebrate Ramadan without the festivities associated with it. Family visits are strictly monitored — no more than five people in one place in the UAE — and exchanging cooked food is not allowed. House maids are not allowed to contact anybody outside the household.
The authorities are giving regular briefings on the situation through social media and other tools in order to assure the public that stocks of food and other consumables in demand in Ramadan are sufficient. Nobody has feared any shortages of basic necessities since the start of the crisis, however, even if there was a rush for face masks and sanitisers at the beginning of it.
In the UAE and Kuwait, there have been stepped-up inspection patrols to make sure that outlets selling food and medicines are not fleecing customers or exploiting present circumstances to market non-authentic products.
One other important feature that is absent in the Gulf this Ramadan is the tradition of family visits. Many Gulf families are spread out in more than one country, and Ramadan is traditionally a time to exchange visits, but that is almost impossible for the time being. The Ramadan umra, the lesser pilgrimage to Mecca, especially in the last third of the holy month, is also an essential part of the holy month for Gulf citizens, but Mecca is under a strict lockdown and travel is not possible.
The traditional meals of Ramadan might still be being served in many Gulf homes, but the joy of big family gatherings and of families coming together for Iftar and Sohour whether at home or in a tent is missing. It is a price that needs to be paid in order to control the spread of the coronavirus, but it has come as a heavy blow to regional traditions and social habits.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 30 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under headline: The Gulf in Ramadan