Dubai revelers swap bars for tents at Ramadan

Muslims wait to break their fast with Iftar, the evening meal, during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan at a mosque in Dubai on Oct. 8.
Muslims wait to break their fast with Iftar, the evening meal, during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan at a mosque in Dubai on Oct. 8.Kamran Jebreili / AP file
/ Source: Reuters

Dubai’s nightlife is famous for its Western-style pubs and discotheques in the conservative Persian Gulf region, but during Islam’s holiest month, the partying becomes more traditional at “Ramadan tents.”

The city slumbers during the daytime hours of Ramadan, when Muslims abstain from food, drink and sex from sunrise to sunset.

But come nightfall, people throng to Bedouin-style tents at hotel beaches and rooftops to smoke tobacco water pipes, eat traditional Ramadan dishes, and enjoy a festive outing.

“If you want to relax in a laid-back atmosphere, this is where you come,” says media professional Shireen, as she sips mint tea at a hotel swimming pool area that has been transformed into an Arabian Nights-like vista.

Colored-glass lanterns and palm trees line several red and white canvas tents and three musicians play old Arabic folk tunes on the ud — a stringed instrument, popular in the region.

Waiters pour Ramadan beverages such as sahlab, a hot milky drink flavored with nuts and cinnamon, or jallab, concentrated date juice with pine seeds and raisins.

“When I first heard of the tent a couple of years ago, I was intrigued, but never really figured out how it was linked to Ramadan or Islam. Then I understood it was just a way for businesses to make money during this time,” Shireen said.

The concept of “Ramadan tents” was launched in the early 1990s in Egypt and later spread to other Arab countries and cities including Dubai, where revenues from entrance fees, food, drinks and shisha are estimated to reach 75 million dirhams ($20.42 million) in that one month.

Dubai-based hotelier Aziz Benhelli says tents came to Dubai — one of the seven emirates of the United Arab Emirates — in the mid-1990s but really took off in 2000.

“When hotels first launched tents in Dubai, they were very basic but now they have put a lot of effort into them,” he said.

Shisha delights
An integral part of the tent is the water pipe or shisha that is a popular social activity in many Arab countries, in which even non-smokers sometimes join in. People often play card games or backgammon during the shisha sessions.

“Shisha is very essential to the Ramadan outing and some people get addicted to it,” said Iyad, a real estate professional, taking a puff from the ornately decorated pipe.

People order an average of 150 to 250 shishas per night at outlets in Dubai during Ramadan compared to between 90 to 100 outside the lunar month, industry experts say.

Cafes that offer shishas, or hookahs as they are commonly known in the West, have over the years spiced up the range of flavors to include fruit and coffee tastes to attract more customers, especially women.

“I don’t like to smoke shisha but I like its smell which is now linked to Ramadan. Shisha, tents, they are all a big part of celebrating Ramadan and I look forward to them each year,” said Dubai resident Ura.