DUBAI: The world economic crunch has hit the Middle East too, but is not deterring many Muslims from throwing traditional banquets to break the fast each dusk during the holy month of Ramazan, even if it means cutting back on other expenses.
But for some, such as in the Gaza Strip, the crushing weight of poverty and an Israeli blockade is too much for even the most determined.
In the oil-rich Gulf region, supermarkets have been crammed with customers since Ramazan began last week, shopping for food and drinks in preparation for the banquet, or iftar, sometimes served in lavish tents or hotel ballrooms.
Some are making an exception and running budget deficits, because Ramazan is not only a time for prayer and spiritual reflection but also for social bonding over meals with family and friends.
‘This is the only month when families get together for banquets. They do not care about the crisis; people forget about their worries during those get-togethers,’ Emirati housewife Umm Saeed said in Dubai.
‘People are inviting each other over for food more often during this month. It is as if they are competing against each other for who buys the most things and cooks the most food.’
Mashael Mekki, a Sudanese living in Dubai said: ‘Food is food no matter if there is an economic crisis; people are buying and cooking the same quantities as last year. It’s Ramazan; people are hungry.’
‘I am buying the same things as I did last year,’ she said, adding that ‘the same people who have invited us last year are also inviting us this year.’
The same sentiment was shared by people in neighbouring Qatar.
Mohammed al-Sada, a 32-year-old government clerk, said cutting back on spending is ‘unthinkable’ because Ramazan has a ‘special status’.
‘There is merchandise that should be bought during Ramazan as is the case every year even if I have to depend on the credit card. Perhaps I will economise after the month is over in order to compensate for the budget deficit, but we are not ready to change our habits during Ramazan.’
Elsewhere in the Middle East from Egypt, Syria and Lebanon to Jordan, Ramazan activities are in full swing.
Customers throng cafes and restaurants, staying up late, smoking shishas (water pipes), drinking tea or eating sweets and delicacies while chatting and exchanging news.
But in the Gaza Strip, where an Israeli offensive killed hundreds and flattened vast swathes of the territory at the new year, Ramazan reminds people of the severe poverty they live in as a result of an Israeli blockade.
Rashad Abu Aisha said this is the worst Ramazan her family has ever seen, with widespread shortages and skyrocketing prices at the local market.
‘The war has added so much to our grief; it’s more than we can bear,’ he said.
Since Hamas came to power in Gaza in 2007, Israel and Egypt have sealed the territory off from all but basic goods.
Even those whose homes and loved ones were spared by the fighting have faced rolling shortages and the highest prices in memory, as they have had to rely on goods smuggled in through tunnels from Egypt.
As a result, the festive Ramazan lamps that line the streets of cities across the Muslim world are, in Gaza, largely confined to store-fronts.
Sami, a 40-year-old father of seven, says the little money he is able to scrape together will have to go for supplies for the coming school year.
‘People in Gaza never know when the next disaster is going to come and how they are going to deal with it,’ he says. ‘Most people are without work and without a source of income.’
Shopowners, meanwhile, say that while they are able to fill their shelves with smuggled goods they have few customers.
Generally speaking, consumers in the region have complained of higher prices of even basic foods.
‘I have noticed an increase in the prices of staple foods, the foods we use in our everyday meals, such as rice, vegetables, bread and meats. They are raising the prices on things that we need the most,’ said Umm Khalifa in Dubai.
‘I think the rise in prices is unjustified since they know that during Ramazan we consume more so this way they are creating more pressure on households.’
This is common every Ramazan and is, in part, due to higher demand. And as always, this prompts governments to take measures to clamp down on price hikes.
For example, the UAE ministry of economy said it was monitoring the fruits and vegetables market in Abu Dhabi during Ramazan to ensure price stability.
Ministry representatives have fined some shops for failure to stick to designated prices or for a lack of price tags on merchandise.
In Egypt, on the other hand, the crisis seems to have forced a cut in the price of a staple of the Ramazan diet, the date.
Tradition dictates that fruit-sellers nickname their dates to reflect unofficial popularity ratings, and US President Barack Obama is near the top of the list this year.
The ‘Obama’ date had been expected to fetch 25 Egyptian pounds (around 4.50 dollars) a kilogram (2.2 pounds).
But Mohammed, a fruit vendor in the bustling Cairo’s Sayyeda Zeinab neighbourhood, said ‘people can’t afford dates this year; we had to bring the price down to 15 pounds.’