From the religious fasting of Ramadan to the fun festivities of National Day, a whole host of sacred and secular holidays are observed in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). For travellers this can be both a blessing and a curse, as while some celebrations will undoubtedly enhance your trip, other public holidays and religious occasions will see Dubai virtually grind to a halt.
Although national holidays are on a fixed date every year, the timing of Islamic festivals shifts according to the lunar Hijri calendar that tracks the phases of the moon. So, if you are planning a holiday to Dubai it’s worth noting when these special occasions will happen, to either avoid travelling on those dates, or deliberately arrange your break to coincide with the celebrations.
Big religious occasions
The major Islamic occasions of Ramadan, Eid Al Fitr and Eid Al Adha are observed in the UAE, and significantly affect the way things function. Ramadan will start on 16 May this year, and as a holy month of prayer and strict fasting – when eating, drinking and smoking in public are not permitted during daylight hours – it will probably have at least some impact on travel plans.
During Ramadan Muslims can only eat before dawn and after sunset so many restaurants and attractions are closed or have reduced operating hours, and taxis can be hard to come by. That said, the city is particularly peaceful at this time of year and if you were to stay within the confines of Dubai’s upmarket international hotels, you might not notice much of a difference.
Fortunately, the month of Ramadan ends in the almighty feast Eid Al Fitr (Feast of the Breaking of the Fast), which begins on the evening of Thursday 14 June this year and continues over the UAE weekend of Friday 15 and Saturday 16 June, with Sunday 17 June also being a public holiday.
The occasion has a similar feel to Christmas, and although it partly consists of sermons and prayer, sharing food with family, giving gifts and shopping for new clothes is also a big part of it. Emirati women paint elaborate henna tattoos on their hands and everyone wears their finest outfits and perfume. This can be a really pleasant time to visit Dubai if you are interested in local culture, exciting spectacles, or generous shopping discounts.
Ditto with Eid Al Adha (Feast of Sacrifice), which falls on Wednesday 22 August in 2018 and will also be celebrated on Thursday 23 and Friday 24 August. Considered the holiest of Islamic festivals, both days preceding the weekend will be public holidays in Dubai when mosques are festooned in flowers and lights, malls throw massive sales, and there are parades, pyrotechnics, and traditional performances around the city.
Immediately preceding Eid, Arafat Day (also known as Haj Day) on Tuesday 21 August is another public holiday tied to Islamic beliefs when traditionally pilgrims would travel from Mina to Mount Arafat. Combined with Eid Al Adha, this is a popular time for locals to take their summer holidays.
But the first Islamic holiday of 2018 is Ascension Day (Leilat al-Meiraj), which will be on Friday 13 April this year. According to the Hijri calendar, this is the 27th day of the Islamic month of Rajab marking the night Allah is said to have spirited the Prophet Mohammad away from Makkah to Jerusalem and into heaven. As Fridays and Saturdays are the weekend in Dubai, Ascension Day will likely have little effect on travellers, though it could offer a chance for visitors to see a more traditional side to the emirate.
Islamic New Year – the start of the new Hijri calendar year – falls on Tuesday 11 September 2018 and sees the traditional day of Al Hijri observed in Dubai, while the Prophet Mohammad’s birthday (Mouloud) is celebrated on Tuesday 20 November 2018. On both occasions the city operates abit like a bank holiday in the UK, so while there’s no need to adjust your travel plans, be aware that public services may be limited.
Like most places in the world, New Year’s Day is an official national holiday in Dubai. The city is a great place to be on New Year’s Eve, where it’s celebrated with typical extravagance, including spectacular fireworks displays. But there are two other big state holidays exclusive to the UAE that tourists should know about.
Happening every year in November and December almost back-to-back are Commemoration Day on 30 November and UAE National Day on 2 December, though the latter is actually celebrated over a two-day period. Commemoration Day is the equivalent of Remembrance Day in the UK, when the country honours its fallen heroes. The national flag is lowered from 8-11am, followed by a minute’s silence.
Commemoration Day falls on a Friday this year and National Day on a Sunday, and the celebrations will continue into Monday 3 December, which will also be a public holiday. This means that travelling to Dubai at this time is very similar to visiting the UK over the Easter weekend. Although it can disrupt travel plans, it can also be immensely rewarding if you like parades and themed events.
In fact, the long weekend is a vibrant annual fiesta of sorts and National Day is a fun occasion worth travelling for – think fireworks, lots of flag-waving, cultural festivals and pride in all things Emirati. It commemorates the Emirates’ independence from English rule and the unification of the seven emirates in 1971 to form the modern day UAE.
Many of the city’s major monuments and star attractions put on special free events, while hotels and restaurants get into the National Day spirit by serving up tasty local dishes and offering discounts and freebies to visitors. For shopping fans, National Day weekend is also a great time to grab a bargain as the city’s famous malls. The Mall of the Emirates, Dubai Mall and Ibn Battuta Mall, to name just a few, hold sales galore.