Where Ramadan Becomes a Season to Make Money

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Asmaa Waguih / Reuters

A woman looks at traditional lanterns called fanous in a shop in Old Cairo on Aug. 8, 2010, a few days before the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan

When Ademir Husagic, the executive chef and food and beverage director at the Monarch Dubai hotel, first arrived in Dubai 11 years ago, Ramadan was a quiet affair. It was meant to be austere. During the holy month, which began this year at the sighting of the crescent moon on Aug. 11, Muslims refrain from food, drink, cigarettes and sex during daylight hours in order to pray and perform charity work. (Ramadan is believed to be the month that the Koran was first revealed by God to the Prophet Muhammad.) Husagic recalls seeing tents erected along Jumeirah Beach, where local sheiks and their families would gather to break the Ramadan fast in traditional iftars at sundown and to have suhoors, the early-morning meal. "Now, it's commercialized more," says Husagic. "It's become quite a big business."

In Dubai, five-star hotels feature lavish buffets of meats, vegetables and desserts each night during Ramadan. In addition to hosting the events in ballrooms, many hotels erect special Ramadan tents that mimic the traditional majlis where Bedouins would gather. At the Jumeirah Beach Hotel's Ramadan tent, for example, the minimum price is $270 per guest for food and nonalcoholic drinks; up to eight people can congregate in a private majlis. General seating in the tent is priced at $27.

At malls and groceries, store displays wishing shoppers Ramadan kareem are usually accompanied by special promotions on products. Marriott informs travelers of special Ramadan rates at its hotels in Egypt, while a Toyota newspaper ad entices buyers with a special holy-season sale: "Drive away today. No payments until Ramadan 2011." A local bakery touts half off on a dozen Ramadan cupcakes, which are topped with miniature minarets, crescent moons and bottles of Vimto, a popular drink to break the fast.

During Ramadan, work hours are reduced throughout the Muslim world, giving people time for more leisure. Television viewership spikes and special Ramadan soap operas are created to lure audiences. In Egypt — the largest market in the Middle East and North Africa region — advertising spending alone during Ramadan hit $146 million last year, a 62% increase over any other month in the year, according to the Pan Arab Research Center in Dubai.

The Muslim holy season is in many ways as important for business as Christmas is in the U.S., with many retailers in the United Arab Emirates counting on Ramadan sales to serve as the foundation for a year's worth of business. With Dubai's economy in recession and hotel occupancy rates low, managers are pressing their staff to keep business up. "I told our sales team we have to go out and aggressively sell our iftars," says Husagic of the Monarch. "I don't want to lose any business so we try to fit the shoe for every person and for every company." The hotel reduced its rate for its iftar feast $10 from $46 last year.

A large proportion of Ramadan spending in Dubai is done by companies. Says Wael Ghonim, an Egyptian expatriate and head of marketing for Google in the Middle East and North Africa: "Ramadan has a different taste here. Iftars are from companies, not family members." Many businesses see the holy month as a good opportunity to reach out to customers and suppliers and host iftars and suhoors. Google is hosting both an iftar and suhoor in Dubai and in Cairo this year for about 100 people. Last year, the company used the event to help introduce some new products, Ghonim says.

In other countries, "there is a little bit more of a charity aspect to [Ramadan] than there seems to be here," says Dane Bigner, an American expatriate who lived in Egypt and Indonesia before moving to Dubai last year. And indeed, both government and charitable groups have recently begun a campaign to remind Gulf Muslims of the real spirit of Ramadan. The Environment Agency of Abu Dhabi earlier this month cautioned Emiratis against wasting food. About 500 tons of food are thrown out each day during Ramadan, the agency said. Hefth Al Ne'ma, a charity that has collected leftover food from banquets and weddings since 2004, is working with Abu Dhabi hotels to donate leftover food from suhoors. After all, the Koran advises the faithful that God is with those who restrain themselves.