Doing Business During Ramadan

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Ali Haider / EPA

A jewelry merchant sells his products at the Ramadan Fair in al-Sharjah ,UAE, September 28, 2007.

These are not fun times for the foreign businessman trying to work deals in the Arab world. Muslims all over the world have now been fasting for more than two weeks as the holy month of Ramadan is flying by. Many feel that their main priority in the coming period is to focus on the spiritual rituals; reading and reciting the Koran, late nights spent in prayer at home or at the local mosque, daytime hours spent in fasting — a period bookended by sumptuous pre-dawn and sundown meals. The combination of piety and celebration turns the Arab World into a juggling act as people keep up religious rituals along with the TV marathon of soap operas and entertaining family and friends. Ramadan just isn't the right time for business.

It is even more frustrating if that business involves the public sector and government employees. The working day is extremely short — just four hours in some agencies — and if you are dealing with a male employee then he is most likely to be in a snappish, intolerant mood brought on by lack of tea, cigarettes and sleep. If she is a woman then most probably she will be totally distracted by how she will manage to brave the traffic to pick up her children from school and have the warm iftar meal ready by 6 p.m., when the daily fast ends. She will usually skip work early. Banks also work shorter hours and are not open again for business after Iftar. In some countries like Saudi Arabia, offices close down completely during prayer — around half-an-hour five times a day — so good timing becomes of critical importance. In bustling Cairo, if the work that needs to be done entails going downtown or across town, then chances are only one errand will be accomplished a day. Traffic in this busy capital of around 17 million people comes to a complete halt. Main roads and bridges are blocked and side streets are jammed with school buses and desperate taxi drivers hoping to get home in time.

During Ramadan, you can forget business lunches. Typically French, Italian, Chinese and Japanese restaurants close down for renovation and maintenance during Ramadan. The same is true for pubs, night clubs and cinemas. Do not expect to be served beer, even at hotel restaurants that remain open during the period. (Some five-star hotels in a couple of countries have a single bar open offering alcoholic drinks to foreigners only.) Most of the restaurant business is taken over by cafes that offer the post-Iftar shisha (hookah pipes) and sweet drinks like hibiscus and tamarind juices.

Still, in cosmopolitan Cairo and Beirut, most hotels and some trendy restaurants take advantage of tradition and capitalize on the late Ramadan hours, putting up large tents where friends meet for the late Sohour meal, mint tea, games of cards, backgammon, music and of course the Shisha. Business people have taken advantage of these traditional gatherings to make contact with clients and government officials.

If the visitor's business is with the private sector, then, it is almost business as usual. That is, apart from the observance of different meal times and the longer evening prayer, which starts at 7:30 p.m. and lasts anywhere from one to two hours depending on which country you are in. Still, the overall pace is still slow. The bottom line: unless it is urgent business, schedule your trip before or after Ramadan.