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Ramadan is a time for spiritual reflection, charity, family, and community. While the time spent indoors praying, watching Ramadan television series, and gathering to eat large meals contributes to religious renewal and social solidarity, personal health has not usually been a focus. Yet, buffeted by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, Ramadan in the Gulf this year has been met with a new emphasis on fitness and healthy living.
A Growing Domestic Sports and Fitness Industry
Gulf Arab states have invested extensively in the sports and fitness sectors in recent years. They had focused primarily on infrastructure, such as building large stadiums and training facilities, and hosting international sports events and athletes. But more recently, Gulf countries have expanded into local sports and promoting national talent. Preparing young local athletes to compete globally and encouraging healthy living within the community come under Gulf state development goals, which include both economic diversification and improving well-being as policy priorities. Such efforts have multiplied in the past few years, from organizing jiujitsu championships and golf and basketball tournaments to bringing back the tradition of camel racing competitions.
Encouraging khaleejis to become physically active and health conscious is an emerging trend responding to the more sedentary lifestyle of Gulf youth. It used to be common for Gulf residents to be outdoors harvesting dates, fishing, pearl diving, or herding animals. Traditional Gulf sports popular among the local population were also primarily outdoor activities, such as falconry and horse and Saluki racing.
With the coronavirus pandemic, and the ongoing impact on public health, staying healthy has been in the forefront during the fasting period. This Ramadan, local sporting events and community-based physical activity challenges have increased, both virtually and in person. In preparation for the holy month, Gulf-based news platforms published articles on the significance of staying in good shape, providing medical-expert tips on weight management and offering advice on appropriate physical training activities while fasting.
Announcements of Ramadan fitness activities, including yoga, cycling, triathlons, and marathons, have appeared across the region. In the United Arab Emirates, the government established the Ma’kom (With You) in Ramadan program, offering motivational and educational programs during the fasting period, such as “Cooking With Chef Ma’kom” and “Gym With You.” Dubai’s Sports Council also announced the second Ramadan Mubarak Challenge, a virtual running competition, providing different races to urge UAE nationals and residents to run in indoor spaces, at home, or around their neighborhoods, despite restrictions imposed by the pandemic. UAE Minister of Culture and Knowledge Development Noura Al Kaabi, an influential role model for many young khaleejis, posted the Motion Cycle Ramadan challenge on Instagram a few days before the start of Ramadan, supporting a cycling studio in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. The Saudi Sports Federation For All launched daily running challenges and a series of events as part of the Step Together campaign to encourage the local community to stay active. In Doha, the Qatar Foundation also released its program for online Ramadan yoga classes and a FIFA e-tournament.
The Promotion of Healthy Living and Eating
Health promotion and fitness education are relatively new in the region. Health-related issues, such as obesity and diabetes, have been a growing concern for the khaleeji community for some time, and attention to such pressing public health issues has increased in recent years. In 2011, international reports ranked Kuwait as the country with the highest obesity rate globally. A new study also revealed that 15% of Omanis suffer from diabetes and 30% are affected by obesity, indicating the persistence of illnesses related to diet and nutrition in the region.
Increased awareness of the long-term consequences of food-related health problems facing the Gulf countries has led to the acceleration of state-led measures to change the local populations’ relationship with food. For example, in 2013, Kuwait’s Ministry of Health launched the Salt and Fat Intake Reduction Task Force. In 2018, Oman organized its first Obesity Conference as 60% of Omanis were considered overweight or obese. In 2019, Saudi Arabia imposed a 50% tax on sugary beverages, a measure Bahrain implemented a year earlier. On top of this, the health food business has been booming, and demand for unprocessed and organic products is growing.
The traditional khaleeji cuisine is as mouthwatering as it is rich in fats and calories, mostly made of rice and fried foods. High-calorie dishes consumed more frequently during Ramadan include the traditional porridge-like buttery meal harees, dating back to the 10th century. This meal is usually cooked overnight and involves boiling starch and meat.
A typical table for iftar, when khaleejis break the fast at sunset during Ramadan, is usually a feast of irresistibly appetizing savory and sweet dishes. Serving deep-fried nibbles and sugar-based traditional desserts alongside large portions of spiced rice and meat dishes is also part of Gulf Ramadan customs, such as the crunchy sweet dumplings luqaimat and a variety of stuffed pastries. Across the Muslim world and in Muslim communities, preparation for Ramadan iftars is typically as festive and time consuming as cooking for Christmas, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, or a Diwali feast but for each night of the holy month. The long-standing tradition of serving delicious meals during Ramadan has not generally included healthier alternatives, commonly resulting in unwanted weight gain.
Tips on health-conscious Ramadan food preparation have been posted widely by regional media outlets, including advice on foods to avoid and suggestions for people who suffer from diabetes or other health issues. UAE-based weight loss company and restaurant chain Kcal partnered with Saudi celebrity chef and winner of MBC’s “Top Chef Arabia,” Hala Ayash, to offer healthy cooking recipes this Ramadan. On this year’s top Ramadan shows to watch, the Dubai-based food network Fatafeat is hosting a television program with Egyptian chef Manal Al Alem, who is famous for her vegan adaptations of traditional Arabic food. Another Fatafeat-sponsored show on the top charts this year is “Ibn Al Bahhar” (Son of the Sea), which is centered on educating the audience about sea life and fishing, while presenting a variety of fish-based Ramadan meals.
Balancing food consumption and fitness in Gulf communities, especially during Ramadan, has become a recurring theme on various media platforms. These trends and government-sponsored efforts related to fitness and healthy food consumption are helping Gulf youth take promising steps toward maintaining Ramadan traditions while making healthier decisions, both physically and nutritionally.
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Through its careful examination of the forces shaping the evolution of Gulf societies and the new generation of emerging leaders, AGSIW facilitates a richer understanding of the role the countries in this key geostrategic region can be expected to play in the 21st century.Learn More