Euro 2016 football fever overshadows soap operas in Arab world
CAIRO - From Dubai to Tunis, Euro 2016 football fever is sweeping the Arab world, filling cafes and restaurants and overshadowing the nightly television soap operas that normally dominate Ramadan viewing.
Every year, during the Muslim fasting month, television audiences soar as families gather in front of their sets after breaking the daytime fast.
Usually the ratings are dominated by the dozens of rival soaps that are aired by state and private channels. But this year, Ramadan coincides with the Euros which are another massive draw.
"The Euro championship is a high season for us," said Mohammed Saeed, who runs a cafe in an upmarket area of Cairo. "We wait for it every four years to guarantee a full house."
Cafes in the Egyptian capital have draped the flags of competing countries over their entrances to attract fans.
Some games are played during the day, when devout Muslims are fasting, while others clash with the iftar meal which breaks the daily fast at sunset.
In Tunisia, where most cafes are closed during daylight hours in Ramadan, the venue moves to people's homes.
Evening games begin a few minutes after Muslims break their fast, a time most Tunisians spend with their families watching television.
"No doubt there will be disputes in homes between those wanting to watch the soaps and others who want to watch the Euro matches," said the head of a major television channel in Tunisia.
Television viewing in the region peaks during Ramadan with ratings remaining high well into the night and advertisers devote large chunks of their budget to the small screen's high season.
With most games showing on foreign satellite channels, the main Tunisian channels have scheduled daily analysis programmes on the matches.
- Passionate about football -
Ramadan hasn't stopped people following the contest on big screens in the Gulf.
In Kuwait, whose national team was banned by FIFA in October from taking part in World Cup qualifying matches because of alleged government interference in sports, fans take consolation in the Euros.
"Kuwaitis are passionate about football. It's their favourite sport. But with the local championship being dull, football fans are passionate about the Euros," said Salman Awad, former coach of the local Al-Salmiya team.
Germany, the reigning world champions, are the most supported team in Kuwait and in many other Arab countries, exceeding defending European champions Spain.
"Germany will win against Spain" in the final, was the prediction of Abbas Sistani as he sat in a restaurant in Kuwait City.
In Dubai, one restaurant has erected a huge tent on the beach with big screens to show the games.
Wafts of aromatic smoke fill the air as diners puff on flavoured tobaccos from hookahs, the water pipes that are a popular social pastime across the region.
In another restaurant, an excited Jamie, sporting a white England shirt, said the cosmopolitan city state was a great venue to follow the tournament.
"I don't think we're going to win it. I don't think we're close to being favourites," he said.
But "when it's a decent game, this place is jam-packed... you can't get that atmosphere at home... It's as good as it gets."