For those that saw the title of this post and clicked on it thinking it must be a cultural post about a historic monument in Abu Dhabi, you are going to be disappointed. In fact the “Abu Dhabi stone” refers to the amount of weight that expats traditionally put on in their first twelve months in the country (more generally known as the “expat stone” as it happens elsewhere as well).
We spent a couple of interesting hours at ADIHEX today. ADIHEX is the Abu Dhabi International Hunting & Equestrian Exhibition, one of the four biggest hunting shows in the world, which has been running for the last few days at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre.
As I sit here killing the final hour before my taxi arrives to take me to the airport to fly back to the UK, the UAE Government has just announced that the Moon Sighting Committee (it really exists) has witnessed the Shawwal moon (Shawwal being the tenth month of the lunar Islamic calendar), meaning that Ramadan ends today and the Eid Al Fitr holiday begins tomorrow.
Over the last couple of weeks I have been keeping myself busy in the evenings by volunteering with INJAZ UAE to run a career development program for a group of students who have secured scholarships from one of the most prestigious companies in Abu Dhabi.
The students were selected after an assessment program that started at an early stage of their schooling and in the next few weeks will head off to the US to complete their final year of school before going to University. When they return to the UAE in four years time they will be in a strong position to secure an attractive job with the government entity that is sponsoring them.
“Remember: mirror, signal, manouvere”.
They’re having a traffic safety campaign during Ramadan here in the UAE. There are regular slots on the radio where they remind us how to drive, with the help of experts who sagely advise us not to brake too hard because the person who is driving right up our back bumper may crash into us (never mind that they shouldn’t be so close to us in the first place).
Tomorrow sees the start of our first Ramadan in the UAE, this year coinciding with the hottest part of the year.
A quick overview for those not so familiar with Ramadan. It is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, during which Muslims worldwide fast during daylight hours. Observing the annual fast is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, and is obligatory for all adult Muslims, except for those who are ill, travelling or pregnant. The month lasts 29 or 30 days depending on the sighting of the crescent moon. This link to the lunar calendar means that Ramadan moves forward about ten days each year.
Whilst fasting from dawn to sunset (about 15 hours in the UAE at this time of year) Muslims refrain from consuming food, drinking liquid, smoking, and engaging in sexual relations. Each day before dawn many Muslims observe a pre-fast meal or suhoor. And at sunset the fast breaking meal is know as iftar, with many hotels offering special buffets to entice people in.
Non Muslims are expected to respect the fast given that we are guests in a Muslim country, which is fair enough. That said, most offices will make a room available for people not observing the fast to have a sneaky drink or snack, and some restaurants are open during the day with specially screened off sections for non Muslims to go and eat without offending anyone.
Work and school hours change during Ramadan. School starts a little later than normal (8am rather than 7:45am) and finishes at 1pm rather than 2:30pm. I will still start work at 8:30am but will finish two hours earlier than normal at 3:30pm.
To be honest we’re not really sure what to expect, although from listening to the radio, speaking to friends / colleagues, and reading other blogs, the common advice seems to be:
- Do not be seen eating, drinking or smoking in public, and remember that your car is considered to be a public place so the rules apply there just like out in the street. It may be a myth but people have apparently been stopped by the police for breaking this rule.
- Don’t play loud music in your home or car. Ramadan is a time of reflection and loud music isn’t good for this. So Flossie will have to stop blasting One Direction out 24 hours a day, every cloud, etc.
- Rush hour changes from 6pm to 2pm / 3pm because that is when most offices close. Apparently the normally “erratic” driving we see here becomes even more “erratic” when people haven’t eaten for seven or eight hours so one needs to be even more alert than normal. In light of this I’m not sure its a good thing I have at least two days in Dubai this week!
- The driving is even more hazardous at around 6pm when people are rushing home for iftar, so some people advise you to stay off the roads all together at this time.
- Dress more conservatively than usual when out in public.
In terms of doing business, I’m told that things slow down considerably, with people working shorter hours and not being in the mood for work due to frayed tempers. Apparently it is a good time to catch up on things that have been outstanding for a while, or to do some strategic thinking. This remains to be seen, all I know at the moment is my diary this week looks just as packed as always.
Jo has the right idea. The kids finish school on Wednesday, and they are on the first plane out of here on Thursday mainly to escape the heat, but the bonus for them this year will be that they are away for most of Ramadan. I will do my best to enter into the spirit of things by observing the fast, who knows maybe I’ll even manage to lose a few pounds.
I shall return in a few days to let you know how it is going.
As always thanks for reading, until next time, Ramadan Kareem (which I think means “Generous Ramadan” or something similar, anyway it is one of the traditional greetings).
Most days at this time of the year the temperature is at least 30 degrees when I set off for work just before 7am. It rises steadily as the day progresses, often reaching 40 during the afternoon and sometimes passing 45. Apparently the highest recorded temperature is 52 degrees, but hopefully we won't have to experience that. The humidity can be oppressive as well, averaging between 55% and 65% most days.
These temperatures are bad enough when wearing shorts and a t-shirt, but nasty when in a suit and tie. Some days I can avoid being outside much. A quick dash to the car in the morning, park in the underground car park, and a quick dash to the lift and the office. If I take my lunch with me I can then avoid going outside until home time. The downside of this is the lack of exercise, but that is for another day.
If I have a meeting out of the office I can usually park close to the client's place of work, and setting off a few minutes early means I have time to cool down before the meeting starts. Some locations can be more difficult to park near to, so in those cases it is usually best to take a taxi and be dropped off right outside the front door.
The worst are meetings within a short distance of the office in places where parking is notoriously difficult. A taxi is still an option if you can persuade the driver to take you such a short distance, but sometimes there is no option but to walk.
In these cases you learn various tricks to try and avoid getting too hot and bothered. I'm becoming an expert at finding routes that may not be direct but keep me in the shade as much as possible, and have learned to pause in front of the open doors of shops and offices to enjoy a cooling blast of air. It helps, but it is inevitable if you are going more than a couple of hundred meters that you will arrive “glowing”.
Thankfully most offices here have very effective air conditioning so you can arrive rather damp and within a couple of minutes be cool and composed and ready to do business.
Unfortunately the air conditioning in my office seems to be amongst the least effective I have found. The rest of the office is fine but when the sun is on my side of the building in the afternoon my rooms starts to get a little uncomfortable. Anyone who used to work with me at PwC will know that this doesn't please me at all.
I don't think it helps that I appear to be locked in a “battle of the air conditioning” with the partner in the office next door with whom I share an aircon control. I turn the temperature down as soon as I get in every day, but – whilst I've not caught him doing it yet – I think he turns it back up when I'm not looking. Brings back memories of stealth battles over the air conditioning with my father-in-law when staying at his apartment in Spain in the past!
I think what I need is a sunshade like on the buildings below which I pass everyday on the way into work. These buildings, affectionately known as “the Pineapples”, have 2000 special panels on the outside which shut automatically when the sun hits them, cutting interior heat gains by up to 50%.
My nightmare would be if the air conditioning in the house were break down at this time of year. It has been known to happen, there was a story in the news a couple of weeks ago about people reverting to sleeping in their cars when they were without air con for a few days. That would definitely be me.
Still, all of these are first world problems. Spare a thought for the petrol pump attendants who serve us expats whilst we sit in our cars with the engine running (dangerous? probably), and what about the construction workers? The Government does try to look after them. From 15 June to 15 September construction site operators must stop work between 12:30pm and 3:00pm, which helps with the worst of the heat but probably not much.
Allow me to introduce you to Waslawi. Many of you will remember Paul the Octopus (RIP) who came to fame in the last World Cup for his uncannily accurate predictions of the outcome of matches. Well Waslawi and his friend Shaheen are the UAE's equivalent, and have been busy predicting the outcome of a few of the first round of matches. Should you have some time to kill before the tournament kicks off, you can watch a video of them making their predictions here.
The mystic camels have predicted that Croatia will beat Brazil in the opening match so it appears that their fortune telling career may be over before it has begun. Indeed their owner is dismissive of their abilities, rather harshly stating that “they are camels, not humans; camels don't understand football”. Maybe he'll be proven wrong.
Unsurprisingly camels are very important here in the UAE, due to their social and economic value. Historically they were a source of transport, and of food and milk, and many Arabs continue to be proud of the number of animals that they own. Nowadays camels tend to be owned for racing (something that is still on my UAE bucket list, but you have to get up very early to go to the races), or farmed for their milk, but some Bedouin families still own a few to be used as sacrifices during festivals.
Apparently camels are given a new name every year, which must be very confusing for them, and their owners. One year olds are called “Hewar”, two year olds “Fateem”, three year olds “Haj”, and you get the idea. It gets more confusing when they hit six, as there are different names for males and females. There are around 200,000 camels in the UAE, with the best known breeds being Misk, Dhabian and Shtoota. Are you keeping up with all this? There will be a test later.
Unfortunately camels have come in for a bit of bad press recently as they have been identified as a likely source of the MERS, or Middle East Respitatory Syndrome, virus. MERS has infected around 700 people, killing nearly 300 of them, in Saudi Arabia in the last couple of years, and there have been a small number of cases in the UAE and elsewhere. The Saudi authorities are taking a number of precautions, including registering all camels and banning some movements across borders, so hopefully the virus won't spread much further.
We've not had a huge amount of interaction with camels so far, other than when we went on our desert safari and at the Qasr Al Hosn Festival. Given the issue above it may be better to leave it that way for a while, but I have to say that it still makes me smile on my regular drive to Dubai to glance across from the highway and see a group of camels happily plodding along, going who knows where. And it's even more surreal to be on some of the smaller roads and to come across the warning signs to watch out for camels crossing the road.
That's enough camel business. I shall let you return to the build up to the World Cup. The time difference doesn't work well for us here, I think England's first game is on at 2am so I don't think I'll be watching it live. Anyway, Waslawi and Shaheen tell me it's going to be a draw so there's no need for me to tune in.
Thanks for reading, see you again soon.
How many of you knew that since 2001, the 1st of June each year is “World Milk Day”? I for one didn't until I was listening to the radio on the way home this evening.
Apparently the day is marked to “celebrate” all aspects of milk, including its natural origin, it's nutritional value, the numerous tasty products which are liked by many people across the globe, the economic importance of milk in rural regions as well as in the entire food chain. There you go.
Obviously now I know about it I can't let the day pass without marking it in some way. So here are some interesting (in the broadest sense of the word) facts about milk in the UAE:
- The largest herd of cows in the UAE (at a farm which I visited a few months ago) is more than 6000 strong, most of which are the eighth generation of the first herd of Freisans that were imported in 1981 when legend has it that Sheikh Zayed decided that the country needed to stop relying on milk from Saudi Arabia.
- The cows have to be milked in specially cooled milking halls, and when out in the open have access to sensor controlled showers so they can cool off at regular intervals (much like the showers they have when you run the marathon or other long races).
- When importing cows you can fit 182 heifers on a jumbo jet (who knows when that particular fact could come in handy).
- There is a growing market in camel milk, the farm in question currently has more than 800 females, which nowadays are automatically milked, although this hasn't been the case for many years.
- In the UAE the government sets the price for milk, which I think is currently 5 dirhams (80 pence) a litre.
I could go on but you probably wouldn't thank me.
One fact that I did hear today which initially surprised me, but when I think about it is probably logical, is that recent studies have shown that 78% of the UAE population is deficient in vitamin D. Given how much sun shine we get here that is something of a surprise, but actually for around half the year we spend our time trying to keep out of the sun as it is so hot, so that is the reason that so many people are deficient.
Apparently the problem is so acute that one company has today launched a “super milk” that includes a number of added vitamins and nutrients, including vitamin D.
So, there you have it, make sure you update your calendars so you don't miss World Milk Day next year.
Until next time, thanks for reading.
You can read more about the history of dairy food in the UAE here.
Thanks to http://www.thenational.ae for a number of the facts in this post.