DUBAI: Hundreds of Asian labourers sit silently on the floor outside Dubai’s Fatima Hassan Mosque in front of plates laden with fruit, pakoras and biryani as they wait patiently in the energy-sapping humidity to begin their Ramazan iftar.
Nearby, sweat-drenched volunteers hastily scoop the deep-fried vegetables and the rice-based dishes of stewed meats from huge metal urns on to plates for the last of their weary guests, as they count down the final minutes until the sun disappears from the horizon, the moment they can break their daily dawn-to-dusk fast in the Muslim holy month due to end as August closes.
The mosque, situated downtown just yards from Dubai’s creek — the location of the emirate’s original trading hub when it was just a small trade and fishing centre — provides a free iftar for the poor every day during the holy month, cooking enough rice, mutton or chicken to feed some 1,500-1,800 workers in one sitting.
The Fatima Hassan Mosque’s waste bins may be empty, but Ramazan brings a huge increase in food waste across the city and the Gulf as leftovers from more lavish banquets attended by the well-to-do are thrown out in a region where soaring summer temperatures mean that fresh food goes off quickly.
“We hardly have any waste. Whatever is left over we serve to people. We call the people over and give it to them,” said Nour Mohammed, a sales coordinator who volunteers to serve food.
But not all iftars in Dubai are simple meals provided for the poor — many of whom are migrant workers, paid less that 1,000 dirhams ($272) a month and often have large debts.
Dubai has transformed itself over the last 50 years into a regional business and tourism hub renowned for extravagant real estate projects, flashy living and the luxurious banquets at hotels and restaurants to accommodate the demands of wealthy consumers who want the best fresh food at their iftar feasts.
The emirate boasts the world’s tallest tower, man-made islands in the shape of palms visible from space, and a number of luxurious hotels — including the sail-shaped Burj Al Arab — many of which lay on massive iftars for those who can afford it.
Iftars at the top end venues are often pricey, with some charging as much as 200 dirhams ($55) per person.
“They see Ramazan as a possibility to squeeze a non-alcoholic consuming demographic and the economy has been slow for a while,” said Mishaal al-Gergawi, a current affairs commentator in the United Arab Emirates.
What a waste
Despite the hours of preparation put into the often vast displays of food, waiters at top hotels in Dubai say much of the food left over goes straight into the waste bins.
The amount of food thrown out in the emirate jumps considerably in the holy month — by as much as 20 percent according to Dubai Municipality, with most of the waste comprising rice and non-vegetable foods.
Around 1,850 tonnes of food were thrown out on average per day during Ramazan in 2010, roughly 20 percent of total waste in the emirate during the holy month, it said.
In neighbouring Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, at least 500 tonnes of food were thrown out on a daily basis during the month Abu Dhabi-based daily the National reported in August last year.
“Hot and cold — all the food on the buffet gets thrown out,” said a waiter at a five star hotel in Dubai who gave his name only as Nazir, through fear of losing his job, as he went around topping up dishes on the iftar buffet, while businessmen hovered around him, eying the vast spread of food on offer.
“If people order room service then we’ll make it fresh again. But sometimes we have a lot of waste,” Nazir said.
Food experts at top hotels JW Marriott and Hilton in Dubai however say they plan so that no food is thrown out despite preparing up to 15 percent more food during the holy month.
“We have control systems that help us avoid excess,” said Simon Lazarus, senior area director of food and beverage, Hilton Worldwide, Middle East and Africa.
“Even if there is a little bit left over the staff all eat it. We never recycle food and we have our own strict policy not to.”
Spirit of fasting
The large increase in food waste during the holy month has drawn criticism from religious scholars who say that it goes against the spirit of fasting.
“Wasting the blessing of Allah, like food, particularly at a time when you see people starving in Ethiopia, Somalia and other places, does not fit in the Islamic notion of moderation. God says in the Koran that those who waste the blessing of God, they are the brethren of the devils,” said Sheikh Muddassir Siddiqui, an Islamic scholar in Dubai.
“Hotels should cut back on the amount of food they provide. It should not be a matter of prestige. Iftars at hotels should not be intended just for rich people but for everyone – particularly the less fortunate and there are many of them.”
One charity that has been looking to help the poor and needy is Hefth al-Ne’ma — Arabic for “Saving Grace.” Set up in 2004, the Abu Dhabi-based organisation collects leftover food from large gatherings such as weddings, banquets and iftars at hotels in the UAE capital to distribute food that is safe to eat.
The charity is hoping to set up operations in Dubai and other emirates later this year its manager Sultan al-Shehi told Reuters.
“There are a lot of people who are in need in the UAE and this is an interesting way to bridge the disparity,” said commentator Gergawi.