Middle Eastern countries are notoriously dishevelled when it comes to gathering data or using statistics; so it comes as no surprise that trying to make sense of the mixed messages about Ramadan and economic productivity, one turns to figures available from global or Western institutions. These in turn are limited; of the 34 countries which are members of the Organizations for Economic Cooperation and Development, only one—Turkey—is a majority-Muslim nation. This makes it difficult to find reliable figures for how the production of goods and services is impacted by a moving lunar month when the entire population abstains from eating during daylight hours. There is even some disagreement about what otherwise seems an obvious question: Does economic productivity actually fall during the Muslim Holy Month?
It depends who and what you are asking. Research published by British universities in 2010 seems to show that some economic indicators in fact improve—the value of shares bought on the stock exchanges of the sampled Muslim countries, for example—during Ramadan. In the findings published by the academics, the values of the stock market indices in selected majority-Muslim countries showed a sharp increase during the 29 to 30 days of fasting Muslims willingly undergo before the Eid al Fitr holiday. Yet we all know that there can be a big difference between the value of stock market indices and actual, real economic productivity—so the question is, does Gross Domestic Product, that measure of the value of the goods and services produced within an economy measurably change during the month of Ramadan?
Well, research published by the Dinar Standard—an online thinktank which specializes in “Emerging Muslim Markets”--only last week, estimates that there is a drop of about 4% in many Muslim countries (including the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Qatar and Turkey) during the month of Ramadan. Yet there is an underlying flaw in the way that the data was gathered, which seems to have focused perhaps exclusively on Muslim office-workers, as opposed to other sectors of the economy. Making matters a bit more complicated, the figures are simply projection based on the drop in the number of office hours worked; in many Middle Eastern countries, including Jordan—not included in the data from DinarStandard—operating hours for government offices are reduced by about two hours per day. This undoubtedly has an impact on the actual goods produced and services rendered in Muslim countries, especially given the comparatively large proportion of OIC economies which is in the public sector, but the assumption here is that all time spent in governmental clerks' offices is being spent with equal efficiency. A more thorough investigation would look into how consumption witnesses an otherwise unexplained increase after business hours, with families spending enormous amounts on leisure and entertainment.
Yet another part of the problem comes with the unpredictability of it all. Not only does the exact time of sunset, and thus the end of the fast, change with each day in Ramadan but so does the time of year in which Ramadan falls: completely disassociating the month of piety and austerity from any kind of seasonal cycle. The month itself varies in length from 30 to 29 days, depending, somewhat controversially, on the ability of an appointed human observer to spot the new moon (this occasionally leads to different countries celebrating Eid on different days); a relic from the decision made, in the very early days of Islam, to have a purely lunar calendar. All of this wreaks havoc not only on individuals' metabolic cycles, but also on the capability of people to plan: You can take your summer holidays during Ramadan one year, but the next, your children will be in school for it.
As far as this author is concerned, there is no getting away from a serious decline in productive economic activity during the Holy Month: Think about it, this article was commissioned for the first week of Ramadan, and instead appears during the last. Happy Eid.
By Abdulhadi Ayyad and Dina Dabbous