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Will Saudi Arabia make Friday a working day?

August 6, 2023 at 4:45 pm

Prospective pilgrims continue their worship to fulfill the Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. [Elif Öztürk Özgöncü – Anadolu Agency]

In a thought-provoking op-ed published on Friday by Saudi Arabian daily newspaper Okaz, entitled “Friday is a working day,” writer Mona Al-Otaibi questions whether the Kingdom’s traditional Friday-Saturday weekend needs an overhaul, igniting a debate on social media.

The piece highlighted the potential financial losses incurred due to Friday being an important workday in the financial world, and it has sparked discussions about whether Saudi Arabia should consider shifting its weekend to Saturday-Sunday, following in the footsteps of neighbouring UAE which made the controversial change last year, after plans were announced in 2021.

At the time, the Emirati the government said it would “ensure smooth financial, trade and economic transactions with countries that follow a Saturday-Sunday weekend, facilitating stronger international business links and opportunities for thousands of UAE-based and multinational companies”. The “surprise move” also came amid rising competition in international business from other Gulf countries, particularly Saudi Arabia and as a means to boost post-pandemic productivity.

Currently, the Saudi weekend configuration stems from a 2013 royal decree issued by the late-King Abdullah that changed the weekend from Thursday-Friday to Friday-Saturday. This move was made to align the Saudi business and economic activities with international markets, which predominantly observe Saturday-Sunday as their weekend. Fellow Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member state Qatar was an early adopter, switching the public sector weekend two decades ago, followed by Bahrain in 2006 and Kuwait the following year. The Sultanate of Oman implemented the change one month before Saudi did in 2013, to align its banking and business days with other countries in the region.

Across the wider Arab world, the Friday-Saturday weekend is common in countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Libya and Iraq while Lebanon (which has a significant Christian population), Morocco and Tunisia officially have Saturday and Sundays off, though it is not uncommon for people to temporarily close business to attend the Friday prayer.

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However, Otaibi suggests that this decision might have overlooked potential financial benefits the country could reap by having a two-day overlap with global businesses. Although she acknowledges this may clash with the religious significance of Friday, whereby many faithful observe the congregational Friday prayer and traditionally it serves as a day when Muslim families get together and spend quality time with one another after the prayers.

Otaibi opines that Friday, in light of global financial markets, is an important day of the week which contributes to economic growth. “On the other hand,” she argues, “Friday is one of the important days for us as Muslims because it is the duty of Friday prayer; therefore, what prevents there from being a system that preserves the obligation of this day and at the same time we benefit from the day as a working day that serves our local economy instead of being a day off? Have we wasted a day that can give us a lot?” she asks.

Prominent, outspoken Saudi dissident and activist, known online as Mujtahidd, has been among Saudi Twitter users to react to the article, and has interpreted it as Saudi Arabia “preparing to cancel the Friday holiday” possibly on the advice of former royal advisor Saud Al-Qahtani.

There have been interesting replies to his tweet, largely appearing to be against the speculated weekend changes.

One user lamented: “Friday prayers will become noon prayers in workplaces.” Several suggested doing so would be emulating the People of the Book: “It is the beginning of the end. Friday is work, then Saturday and Sunday are holidays for Jews and Christians,” tweeted another user.

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However, not all Saudi netizens appeared opposed to the idea with some questioning the religious significance of a day off on Friday:

“Friday is a wasted day for us because everything is intoxicating, and therefore we do not benefit from it as a vacation. A wonderful proposal and we hope to consider it soon,” opined one user.

“Whoever says that Friday is a day off in Islam, there is no interruption of acts of worship such as prayer, fasting and zakat on Friday. As for the issue of recreation and vacation, there is nothing wrong with it being on Friday or any other day,” tweeted one Saudi.

“Actually, if Friday becomes a working day, the number of those who perform Friday prayers in mosques will double compared to the current situation,” another user quipped.

Yet in line with the notion of Saudi Arabia merely following the UAE, one user said: “A ridiculous justification because the Saudi economy depends on the export of oil, and this does not stop on any day, and it is not a diversified economy that may be affected by a day off. It is clear that it is just an imitation of what happened in Dubai, nothing more.”

This is plausible as Saudi Arabia has tended to observe UAE’s actions closely, often using them as a testing ground before implementing similar changes on its own soil. This approach has been evident in various areas, including more liberal and relaxed laws regarding social activities, entertainment, and women’s rights and arguably, in foreign policy with regards to Abu Dhabi’s decision, along with Bahrain to normalise relations with Israel, with Riyadh often speculated to be the next major Arab state to follow suit.

The Kingdom’s Vision2030 reforms, spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), have aimed to diversify the country’s economy and reduce its dependency on oil revenue. Shifting the weekend to Saturday-Sunday could be viewed as a strategic move that aligns with the broader vision of becoming a global investment powerhouse. It could attract more foreign investment, facilitate cross-border transactions, and strengthen economic ties with neighbouring countries.

Nevertheless, there appears to be a genuine concern among conservatives over the country having the wrong priorities and of the impact on undermining the religious importance of Friday and the Friday prayer. As with most social reforms in Saudi Arabia, the decision, if taken, will need to strike a delicate balance between economic growth and religious/cultural preservation, reflecting the complexities and contradictions of modern Saudi society.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.