20 MayMore Business Travel. How to travel during Ramadan.
September 2007. The Middle East. Meeting clients during Ramadan is something that is known to be tricky. We knew about this challenge as we set out to talk to clients about our new Islamic financing product. Working through the challenge was something we thought would be better than putting the meetings off and trying to play catch-up later. The sales trip was due to take us to Dubai, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi.
Ramadan has some pretty simple rules for those who observe it; no food or drink between sunrise and sunset. We started in Dubai. The local rules for Ramadan presented no problems for us there. Hotels simply have a curtained off area or separate room for the non-Muslims. In offices, a quick coffee can be taken out of sight in a kitchen. A quick, furtive sip of water from a bottle in the back of a car between meetings is fine too. We successfully navigate through both Dubai and Kuwait without being in the slightest inconvenienced by the restrictions and in fact, really enjoying the superb suppers offered for Iftar, the meal that follows sunset.
Riyadh, the Saudi capital, is next on the tour. We are lucky to be booked into the Four Seasons, which includes the luxury of being collected at the airport and chauffeured in a Lincoln Navigator to the inviting environs of the hotel in downtown Riyadh. As it is well into the evening when we arrive, we can even indulge in the chilled water in the back of the car. It’s late and we have a number of meetings starting early in the morning. In Saudi, there is no hotel bar to repair to one way or the other, so we head off to our rooms. We’re up early, grabbing breakfast in a special temporary café set up in some meeting rooms and used only during Ramadan. We check out and head to our meetings. These go by quickly and we learn that our last meeting, around lunchtime, is cancelled.
We head back to the hotel, as our next flight, to Abu Dhabi, only leaves at about seven p.m. It’s about 12:30 and we need some food. At reception, we ask where the restaurant is for the non-Muslims. “We don’t have one, sir. Here in Saudi Arabia, we can only offer room service.” Now this is a very unexpected reply. We have checked out, so we ask if we can check back in. “Sorry sir, we are full.” We try a few angles with the reception team, but there is nothing to be done. The only option to us is to sit in the lobby lounge. As we don’t have the car anymore, there is no secret stash of water bottles to fall back on. What follows are six very long, dry hours. My Muslim friends tell me that the fasting is good for them and they do not find it difficult. For us Westerners, pre-conditioned to drink lots of water, those are six very long hours indeed. Parched and increasingly dried out, we while away the time until we can head to the airport.
Fortunately for us, our local flight to Abu Dhabi, where we are connecting to Bahrain, is on Dubai’s Etihad Airlines. The flight attendants are really understanding and as soon as the wheels are up the drinks come out. Canned beer has rarely tasted so good. In Abu Dhabi, even though it is late by the time we are there, the airport is cram packed and heaving with people. During Ramadan, it seems everybody travels at the end of the day. As Mssrs Jagger and Richards would put it: “The joint was rockin’ goin’ round and around.”
Lessons Learned: Ramadan is not that much of a challenge. Except, in Saudi Arabia. If you do find yourself there and then, do not check out of the hotel until you are about to leave for the airport. Without a room, you will struggle.
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