Zaid Belbagi looks at the Saudi Shura Council’s recommendation to shift the country’s weekend.
On Wednesday evenings Riyadh is abuzz with activity. The main roads leading out of town are frantic with SUVs racing towards desert encampments, at the airport flights to Dubai and Manama are fully booked and downtown young men gather in groups to take part in what is effectively a weekly supercar show. This is the weekend in Saudi Arabia, a family affair but also a time to let off steam, just like anywhere else. There is one difference however; it takes place on Thursday and Friday.
This week the Shura council, that advises the King on new laws, recommended that the weekend be shifted to Friday and Saturday bringing Saudi Arabia in step with its GCC neighbours. This has been debated and recommended for many years, at present Saudi Arabia overlaps with the rest of the world for three working days a week only, limiting its participation within the global financial system.
The announcement was based on a study conducted by the Ministry of Civil Service (MCS) and is not yet law, nevertheless the issue is one that has caused a great deal of speculation.
As the lynchpin of global oil production, with a quarter of proven oil reserves and the fifth largest gas reserves, Saudi Arabia’s financial importance is obvious. At present the Kingdom is closed for business during 40% of the energy markets’ business days, which operate a Monday-Friday working week. Being the largest economy in the region the need to pursue such a policy is crucial to Saudi Arabia’s future economic prosperity. The world needs to do business with Saudi Arabia and Saudi Arabia needs the world to do business with it. At the centre of this drive is a goal to position Riyadh as a global financial centre. The multi-billion dollar King Abdullah Financial Districts is illustrative of this. The new stellar development will house the headquarters of the Saudi Stock Exchange (Tadwul) and the Capital Market Authority, featuring a shuttle rail transporting visiting businesspeople directly from the airport. Moving the weekend to be in line with the rest of the world is essential for such projects to succeed.
As with other decisions in the Kingdom, religion and tradition must be taken into account. The importance of Friday cannot be ignored. As the Islamic holy day of the week, Muslims congregate on Friday and it should remain part of the weekend. The proposal to shift the weekend will preserve Friday as a holy day, weakening the argument of those who may oppose such a change on the charge of “emulating the west”. Oman made the switch earlier this year and fingers point to Saudi Arabia following suit… Inshallah.
Zaid M. Belbagi
Zaid M. Belbagi is an expert on Saudi Arabia and acts as a strategic communications adviser to MENA governments. He is a visiting scholar at the King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies. He holds a Masters in Diplomacy from Oxford University and a BSc in International Relations and History from the London School of Economics. He tweets at @Moulay_Zaid.
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