It was just the other week that ‘Ramadan in Dubai’ was launched to much fanfare. Which is a solid start, but, mind you, just the start.
Dubai can be a centre of Ramadan tourism and should be. More than that, though, it might become a hub for ‘Muslim tourism’ generally... the Shariah-compliant complement to Islamic finance.
Just less than 100 years ago, the idea of Muslim tourism would have seemed downright preposterous. Most Muslims never had a chance to go on hajj, their only religious obligation that required travel, and most who did were only able to do so at the end of their lives, when they had saved up enough.
Fast-forward a century. The combination of a growing middle-classes, the leaps and bounds in transportation technology and the omnipresence of global media, Muslim tourism has become viable. It is a demand in search of supply.
Over the last several years, Mecca and Medina have become sought-after Ramadan destinations for Muslims with the means and the desire. There are nevertheless limits on how many people these cities can accommodate, a problem because more want to so observe rituals associated with the Holy Month.
Now Dubai can’t compete with Islam’s holy cities, but the emirate has much more to offer than we might immediately realise. I know, because I just spent my first Ramadan outside of the US... in Dubai.
First, geography. Dubai’s at the centre of the eastern hemisphere and the Muslim world. Thirty per cent of the world lives along the Indian Ocean; Dubai is at the heart of that, too. Dubai hosts an increasing share of the world’s air traffic.
From here you can get to practically anywhere. Not to mention the many tourists who extend their stopovers to spend time here.
Second, activities. Other than Istanbul and Kuala Lumpur, no other Muslim-majority cities can compete with Dubai on accessibility, entertainment options, range of accommodation and overall quality of infrastructure and services. The observant Muslim can break her fast with any cuisine, go to the mosque, head for a cafe and recharge (everything’s open late). And then go back to the mosque.
Third, the mosques themselves. Dubai does one thing I’ve seen no other Muslim city do as consistently well. The mosques here are open... nowhere else in Dubai can you feel such a profound realisation of egalitarianism, when the taxi driver and businessman pray side-by-side, undifferentiated.
Because I had a flexible schedule, I could go to big mosques to hear world-famous reciters (not many cities can boast so many popular qaris) and sometimes in search of hidden gems. Not a single mosque I went to did not have an outstanding imam. The spiritual experience was, as a result, outstanding.
But it was never forced, which means that with the right planning and vision a tourist infrastructure oriented around Ramadan could be easily expanded into a year-round series of services and offerings, enticing the expanding and consciously Muslim middle-classes with vacation options which will not only welcome them but wow them.
One thing I’ve always admired about Dubai is the increasing willingness to combine Arab, Islamic and local designs and patterns with cutting-edge architecture and design. There is not just a willingness but a desire to preserve identity. Let’s apply that spirit and Dubai’s excellence in hospitality and answer new questions.
What does the Ramadan spirit demand in the modern world? How should pious hospitality look and feel?
By answering these questions, Dubai will take its place where it belongs — at the vanguard. Yet again.
— The writer is currently based in the US.