Firms tuck in for Ramadan
Is the Holy Month at risk of becoming too commercial? Duncan Hare asks cultural and business leaders for their opinions...
Ask Ali Alsaloom, the popular Emirati author, TV host and intercultural affairs expert, whether he believes Ramadan has become commercialised - and the answer is emphatic.
“Yes, I do,” says the man behind ask-ali.com. “Just like Christmas, it looks all nice with colourful packaging - it’s been commercialised big time from a religious event.”
He - along with others in the UAE - see a world where the spiritual culture of the Holy Month is being eaten at by a culture of spend, spend, spend. Supermarkets sneakily hike prices, hotels seem to compete with one another to offer the most lavish Iftars and companies appear to think up their latest deals and offers with the view of attaching a Ramadan tag to them.
I put the point to Ali that while the question some are now asking in the UAE is “Do you think Ramadan is over commercialised?”, the more pertinent question nowadays in the West might be “Is Christmas still a religious holiday?”
“Oh, I agree,” he replies. “Now, is Ramadan going to get to that point where Christmas is today - I don’t think so, but it is edging that way.
“Ramadan has been taken away from the spiritual time of being with your own God for 30 days to half and half - you are with your God but you are also living your own life.”
The general manager of one major firm in the UAE said they had not done a special ‘Ramadan offer’ for the three years - but felt they had to this year as “everyone else is doing it”.
He added: “It’s part of the environment. It’s a month of giving. It starts with the summer shopping festival, which drives people to the UAE from other countries.
“Hotels and malls are looking for consumers - everyone’s looking for consumers.” The view is echoed by corporate social responsibility consultant Tamer Hussein, president at UAE-based firm iLearn.
“I believe that retailers have recognised it is a very obvious business opportunity when their customers are emotional, in a celebratory mood and willing and looking to spend a little more,” he says.
What both experts are in agreement is that - when it comes to hotels and Iftars in particular - a very necessary and important service is being provided. It’s just the manner in which it is so often done that irritates.
“What I think is the most objectionable is the decadence with which some hotels lay out buffets,” says Hussein. “When we go in to discuss with the management the need to lay out such extravagant amounts of food - which they know for sure will not be consumed and at least 35 per cent will be wasted - their response is ‘aesthetics’. ‘We can’t have the customers seeing a half empty buffet - even at the end of the evening when everyone is leaving,’ they say.”
Hussein adds that when asked if such firms are afraid of being perceived as wasteful - their response tends to be along the lines of “when in Rome, do as the Romans do”.
But he says: “I don’t think they have spoken to the ‘Romans’ lately. (If they did), I think they would find a surprisingly different response.”
Both Ali and Hussain also agree that the answers to the problems are to find solutions.
“Why don’t organisations ask themselves the true essence and meaning of Ramadan?,” says Hussein. “Why can’t supermarkets offer their customers products to purchase that are labelled for a ‘Ramadan basket’ (for the poor)?
“Why can't stores offer discounted clothes their customers can purchase for the underprivileged? Why can’t phone companies offer one minute free for every minute you purchase to developing nations like India, Pakistan or ones in Africa?
“Why can’t toy and book stores give away a free Holy Quran book to those who purchase one of their products?
“Why don’t cargo and courier companies offer discounted rates to send packages back to developing nations?” Hussein adds: “Look at the essence of Ramadan and choose one principle of Ramadan that
you are good at doing - and service your customers with a product or service designed to fulfill that need.”
Why not, indeed?