Ramadan 2020: how tent companies are adapting to a holy month with Covid-19

Instead of opulent suhoor and iftar tents, companies focus on worker accommodation complexes, field hospitals and Covid-19 ​​​​​​​testing centres

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, May 5, 2019.    FOR:  TIMELAPSE Stills  -  Ramadan Tent Preparations at the Le Royal Méridien Abu Dhabi.  Day 8. Setting up the lighting on the tarpaulin roof.
Victor Besa/The National
Section:  NA
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For Palestinian Adeeb Al Ayedi, the eve of Ramadan is the busiest time of year.

As managing director at Arabian Tents, Mr Al Ayedi is in the business of making the holy month extra special by providing tents for seasonal celebrations.

In the days before Ramadan, he oversees the finishing touches to iftar and suhoor tents, checking crescent and star cutouts are suspended from lofty ceilings with symmetry, latticed lanterns shimmer softly, stages are set for oud soloists and tarab groups, who serenade social gatherings.

The rise of the tent is a sign that Ramadan has come.

But this year, the coronavirus pandemic has hushed celebrations. Mosques are shut, iftars are virtual, gatherings are restricted and the only tents raised this month are PVC marquees for Covid-19 testing centres and field hospitals outside worker accomodation complexes.

Mr Al Ayedi’s tents will not be filled with music, banquets or charity workers this year. Instead of soft lanterns glowing, fluorescent bulbs light tents filled with doctors and nurses.

“We changed our business to the medical field,” said Mr Al Ayedi. “From tents for Ramadan, now we are doing medical tents.”

Members of medical staff wearing protective equipment work during testing, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, at the Cleveland Clinic hospital in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, April 20, 2020. Picture taken April 20, 2020. REUTERS/Christopher Pike
Medical staff inside a Covid-19 screening centre at Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi. Christopher Pike / Reuters

Tents are an integral feature of the Gulf landscape and the setting for weddings, tribal parties, funerals and festivals.

Normally during the holy month, hundreds of tents are erected across the country. Neighbours raise tents outside mosques, where they provide worshippers with free meals at sunset, and companies erect luxury tents for corporate suhoor networking events. Hotels also cover courtyards with canopies for opulent late-night banquets.

“This is their culture, it belongs to the tent,” said Mr Al Ayedi, who has lived in the Emirates for 35 years.

This year, all public gatherings are cancelled as the country adheres to measures to stem the spread of coronavirus. Prices for basic tents have dropped by half to Dh65 per square foot.

Normally, Ramadan constitutes a quarter of Mr Al Ayedi’s annual business. Business stalled a month before Ramadan because of self-isolation measures introduced in March to curb the spread of the virus.

Spring weddings were postponed, tribal gatherings and funerals cancelled.

At first, tent suppliers thought business would pick up by Ramadan.

“Nobody knows how long it will take,” said Mr Al Ayedi. “Nobody knows. It might take one year, two years.

“It’s not a normal Ramadan. Nobody will feel like this is Ramadan.”

Tent companies are now being hired to set up mobile Covid-19 testing centres, such as this drive-through facility. Wam
Tent companies are now being hired to set up mobile Covid-19 testing centres, such as this drive-through facility. Wam

Some expected demand for tents to increase as summer approached and contractors focused on improved accommodation for workers to stem the risk of the virus spreading through worker accommodation.

High-end labour accommodation complexes allocate two to four square metres of space per person. Now, employers are erecting tents to increase personal space and to avoid transporting workers by bus between camps, factories and construction sites.

“Some companies are renting tents to stop people from going to the labour camps,” said Danish bin Shakeel, general manager of Al Ameera Tents and Shades.

“They want to establish tents in their own open areas near the factories to stop people from mingling with other labourers.”

He said he expected more bookings when the midday break law came into effect on June 15.

Workers are required to take a break from 12.30pm until 3pm during the summer months, when midday temperatures can hit 50°C.

This will be a blessing for tent companies. Al Ameera Tents and Shade said Ramadan bookings dropped by two thirds this year and currently the only demand was for Covid-19 testing units and labour accommodation tents.

“When you heard the words Ramadan tent, it means food, it means charity,” Mr Danish said.

“If there’s no get-togethers, there’s no Ramadan tent. It’s been a completely strange year.”