​Ramadan 2015: Iftar for 20,000

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi


Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque tradition

Each Ramadan mosques all over the Middle East hand out free iftar meals to large numbers of fasters, but at Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque this tradition takes on extraordinary proportions. Each evening, up to 20,000 meals are distributed to people from all walks of life, many of whom are migrant workers who are spending the holy month far from their families.

Having started in 2005 with fewer than 2,000 meals, the program has grown year on year. Today, the Armed Forces Officers Club & Hotel (AFOCH), which prepares all the food for the mosque, runs one of the UAE’s biggest catering operations. It involves over 1,000 staff and serves what amounts to over 800,000 meals over the whole of Ramadan.

Scroll down to find out more about the UAE’s biggest public iftar.

Video: A look at the project

Chapter 1: The Kitchens

Handling a daily average of over 30 tonnes of ingredients, coordinating 1,200 staff and complying with the strictest health and safety regulations – catering for the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque’s iftar program is no mean feat. Yet the three chefs in charge of running the program appear unfazed.

Executive chefs Karsten Gottschalk, Georges Gebrayel and executive sous chef Salim Shajahan of the Armed Forces Officers Club & Hotel (AFOCH) are battle-hardened culinary troopers. AFOCH, a five-star resort for members of the UAE military, often caters for large events and, after years of cooking for sheikhs, generals and visiting dignitaries, its chefs are accustomed to discerning clients and impossible deadlines.

So although the iftar program is their biggest and most demanding catering job, which not only puts the kitchen’s operational capacity to the test, but also keeps getting bigger year on year, AFOCH’s trio of head chefs are wont to keeping everything under control. Gebrayel, originally from Lebanon, has been cooking for AFOCH for eighteen years and has been involved with the iftar program from day one. He has witnessed its transformation from generous royal gesture to record-breaking charity initiative: “We have a great team, everybody here works together and everyone knows exactly what they have to do. For example, we have three teams just for preparing rice: one to clean it, one to wash it and one to cook it. All have to cooperate to finish the food in time, without any delay.”

Come sunset each day, service staff must be ready to feed up to 20,000 people in a single sitting. Meeting this daily deadline requires months of planning and stringent protocols for everything from procurement, storage and preparation to equipment maintenance, hygiene inspections and safety. Just like a military operation, no detail is left up to chance. For the chefs, one of the main tests is not just to beat the clock and prepare enough food in time, but also to achieve a consistent flavour in each dish every day. After seven years in the AFOCH kitchens, executive sous chef Shajahan, originally from India, has perfected this art.

Each process is broken down into many different sections. We do a lot of work, so we need a lot of manpower

Salim Shajahan

“Each process is broken down into many different sections. We do a lot of work, so we need a lot of manpower,” explains Shajahan, who oversees part of the AFOCH’s small army of 500 kitchen staff. “When the food is ready, the meals are packaged and placed in hot cabinets. At every stage, we have people monitoring the temperature and timing of everything.” All food must be labelled and transported according to strict guidelines. “Our system allows us to trace each trolley and make sure the temperature chain is not broken over the time limit,” says Gottschalk, who is originally from Germany and joined AFOCH in 2012. “We know exactly when each item was produced, how long it was held and where it needs to go. This is extremely important for food safety and hygiene.”

Preparations for any given day’s iftar actually begin three days in advance, with the thawing of 12 tonnes of frozen chicken in special industrial-sized defrosting chillers. The semi-thawed chickens are then marinated overnight before being cooked in large combi ovens at a rate of about 5,000 portions per hour. Lamb is also on the menu, albeit in smaller quantities since it takes much longer to cook. By two in the afternoon, all food must be packaged and ready to dispatch.

Facts and Figures

Cooking ingredients used, daily average
Over 33 tonnes in total including

tonnes of chicken

tonnes of vegetables

tonnes of rice

tonnes of lamb

ton of tomato paste, oil and spices

To make up to 20,000 Iftar meals

Around 1,000 tonnes of food are needed to prepare a total of 800,000 meals

10,000 for workers' camps around Abu Dhabi

Chapter 2: The Tents

It is three in the afternoon on a sweltering summer’s day during Ramadan 2015 and preparations for iftar at Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque are in full swing. Thirteen large air-conditioned tents have been erected in the north parking lot of the mosque (ten for men, two for women, one for food service). Each tent has a capacity of more than 1,500 people, seated on the floor in three double rows. Behind the tents, several food trucks are already lining up to unload trolley after trolley of freshly prepared food from the AFOCH kitchens.

In the service tent, catering staff is busy packaging iftar boxes. Piles of them stack up on sturdy tables before staff loads them onto trolleys and distribute them in the iftar tents.

Meanwhile, in the tents, volunteers and staff are rolling out reams of plastic tablecloth and unpacking crates of water, laban and juice. The mouth-watering aroma of grilled meat, rice and vegetables hangs in the air.

Right now, every minute counts: in just a couple of hours, the table must be laid for over 20,000 people. After a long day of fasting, any delay in breaking the fast would constitute a serious inconvenience.

By six o’clock, the first tents are ready and people begin to trickle in, visibly relieved to escape the heat and settle down in front of one of the iftar boxes. They are the early arrivals; most people turn up just minutes before sunset, when ushers guide the multitudes into the tents with soldierly efficiency.

Around seven pm, Zakieh, who is on a visit to Abu Dhabi from the United Kingdom, is still almost the only guest in tent five. “They were saying it was going to be full, but now there’s only about half an hour left. I wonder where everybody is?” Like many, he and his wife, who is anticipating sunset in the women’s tent, are looking forward to experiencing a different kind of iftar. Suddenly, fasters begin to file in in their dozens. Within a matter of minutes, the tent is at capacity. Although Zakieh had been sitting on his own, he is soon engrossed in conversation. As people wait, they chat and, every now and then, peek into their iftar boxes. Time ticks on and when the long awaited moment finally arrives, the tent momentarily falls quiet as people break their fast with dates and laban.

Staff and volunteers also briefly interrupt their duties to eat a well-deserved meal. One of the longest-serving volunteers is Bakri Said, who has been working with the Red Crescent Society for 29 years. With him is a volunteer of the next generation: Mohammed, an eleven-year old schoolboy, who has been helping to prepare the tents for iftar. After hours of work on an empty stomach, the joy of sharing iftar with so many people from different backgrounds is written all over their face.

During the whole of Ramadan

Around 1,000 tonnes of food are needed to prepare a total of 800,000 meals


air-conditioned iftar tents with a capacity of 1,500 each

tents for men

tents for women and children

Over1,200 staff, including

500 kitchen

500 service

200 support (includes roles such as hygiene, health & safety, stewards, purchasing, maintenance)

Chapter 3: The Mosque

Roughly a quarter of an hour after sunset, people begin to make their way from the tents to the mosque. Passing through lush gardens, they throng into the 17,000 square-metre courtyard, which has been furnished with rugs, ventilation units and shoe racks.

After performing their ablutions, most of the men proceed into the main prayer hall, while the women congregate in a side hall. The crowd is mostly Arab and South Asian, but also comprises people from all over the world: tourists from the United Kingdom and Sudan rub shoulders with expatriates from Indonesia and the Philippines. The sheer size of the mosque allows thousands of people to enter without it ever appearing crowded.

As with all mass events, certain precautions are necessary. All visitors must pass security checks and, just in time for Ramadan, the mosque has opened a health clinic, with a doctor and a nurse always at hand to treat medical emergencies. During Ramadan, dehydration and heat exhaustion make up the most common cases. The clinic stays open until three in the morning every night throughout Ramadan to accommodate late-night visitors.

After the maghrib prayer, many stay on until the Isha prayer to make the most of their visit. Those who linger enjoy recitals by some of the most respected Quran readers of the Islamic world, who the mosque invites to Abu Dhabi each year. Their solemn voices ring out over the grounds, enhancing the already deeply spiritual atmosphere.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque also holds special symbolic significance for the people of the UAE. Its design fuses influences and materials from all over the world and its doors are open to people of all faiths, reflecting His Highness the late Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nayhan’s vision of creating a place of cultural exchange. The 82 domes, one of which soars to 85 metres of height, feature intricate Moroccan designs on the inside, while exterior walls display Ottoman-inspired ornamentation. Precious metals, semiprecious stones, marble, textiles and interiors were brought in from Austria, India, Italy, Greece, Macedonia, Morocco and Turkey. The mosque is capable of accommodating nearly 50,000 people.

Construction began in 1996 and it took 38 contracting companies and 3,500 workers almost twelve years to complete it. Opened to the public in December 2007, it stands as a monument the Muslim faith as well as to the values of Sheikh Zayed. The late founding father of the United Arab Emirates, whose tomb is located on site, may not have lived to see the mosque’s completion, but his legacy lives on in the charity and community-building initiatives organised by the mosque, of which the iftar program is the most prominent.

This is one of the leading examples of goodwill work done in the UAE

Hasan Almarzouqi

“This is one of the leading examples of goodwill work done in the UAE,” explains Hasan Almarzouqi, Head of the Media and Promotion Unit at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque Center. “Everybody who helps in this program is proud to do so.”

As the night draws to a close, mosque workers switch off the ventilation units, sweep up the floor and roll up the carpets in the courtyard, revealing the full splendor of the marble mosaic underfoot. Tomorrow, they and over a thousand others will be ready to do it all again.

Photo Gallery

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    Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque

    During Ramadan, tens of thousands of people flock to Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque for iftar and evening prayer each day. Well over 1,500 staff and volunteers are needed to run the UAE’s largest iftar.
  • Kitchen Preparation

    In the kitchens of the Armed Forces Officers Club: Executive chef Karsten Gottschalk oversees the preparation of chicken, 12 tonnes of which must be processed every day.
  • Saloona

    Saloona vegetable stew is cooked in giant pots with a diameter of over one and a half meters. Each pot holds 1,000 portions.
  • Biryani

    Biryani is the central element of the iftar meal. At AFOCH, the fastidious preparation process includes a tasting committee, which assesses flavour and texture of each batch.
  • Food Ingredients

    On average, over eight tonnes of vegetables are used per day. With such enormous quantities, food storage is a major concern. AFOCH has separate supersized chillers for lamb, chicken and vegetables.
  • Packing

    Individual portions are packaged in aluminium containers and labelled by date. Food safety is critical for any catering operation, but especially for mass events and during the hotter months of the year.
  • Transportation

    The food is transported in hot cabinets, which hold 200 portions each and maintain a temperature of 65 degrees Celsius. A small fleet of food trucks, fitted with electric plugs, delivers them to the mosque, just a short drive away.
  • Preparing the staff

    AFOCH staff receives a briefing: the training, scheduling and coordination of hundreds of support staff is a considerable challenge and requires months of recruiting and planning.
  • Iftar Boxes

    Assembly of iftar boxes: once the food arrives at the mosque, service staff forms an assembly line to put together the individual boxes.
  • AFOCH Staff

    AFOCH staff receives a briefing: the training, scheduling and coordination of hundreds of support staff is a considerable challenge and requires months of recruiting and planning.
  • Iftar Tents

    As soon as they are ready, the boxes are distributed to the iftar tents. As sunset approaches, it becomes a race against the clock to get everything ready in time.
  • Preperation

    It takes several hours for staff to place the tablecloths, boxes and beverages.
  • Volunteers

    Numerous volunteers of all ages and backgrounds support the event, including many UAE nationals. Mohammed (right), is just eleven years old, while Bakri Said (centre) has been volunteering for 29 years. Like Ahmed Abdullah (left), they are members of the UAE Red Crescent Society.
  • Sunset

    Just before sunset, stewards usher in the crowds, filling one tent at a time. Within half an hour most tents are full.
  • Mosque

    The moment everybody has been waiting for: the sun sets on a day of fasting and prayer and bathes the mosque in ethereal light.
  • Inside the tents

    Inside the tents, the fasters begin their meal with dates and laban. Joyful chatter fills the air as people finally get to quench their thirst and satisfy their appetite.
  • Maghrib prayer

    After iftar, it is time for the Maghrib prayer. A short stroll through the mosque’s lush gardens takes them to the courtyard and prayer halls.
  • Spirit of Ramadan

    As stars begin to appear in the sky above, thousands of faithful offer their prayers inside the mosque, brought together by the UAE’s biggest iftar to experience the true spirit of Ramadan.