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April 24, 2013 6:51 pm
Saudi Arabia moved one step closer to bringing its working week in line with the rest of the Gulf after its consultative assembly agreed to study a recommendation to change its Thursday-Friday weekend.
The Arab world’s biggest economy has long-operated out of sync with the rest of the region – except Oman, which has recently announced its own plans to change its weekend to Friday-Saturday. Matching weekends would facilitate closer business links and trade ties among the Gulf states, which are pushing towards their own economic bloc.
Adhering to a different working week comes at both an economic and productivity cost to Saudi Arabia, which hopes to become a big financial hub and is planning to open its stock market to foreigners. Currently, it only shares three working days with western markets.
“I hope this time they will speed up their decision process, hopefully we’ll see a Friday-Saturday weekend,” says Abdulla Mohammed Al Zamil, chief executive of Dammam-based Zamil Industrial, which employs 10,000 people. “We’ve been looking forward to this for many, many, years.”
The debate can be seen in the context of a swath of labour reforms under way in Saudi Arabia to make the economy more competitive: including the introduction of a minimum wage for nationals as well as discussions to reduce the working hours for the private sector.
While the official weekends apply to the public sector, the private sector in Saudi Arabia still officially works a six-day week.
Fahd Al-Hammad, vice-chairman of the Shura Council – the consultative assembly appointed by the king – told Arab News on April 23 that its members had not approved a change to the weekend but had decided to conduct a review on a study by the Ministry of Civil Service that recommended the switch.
His comments suggest that the change may not happen quickly and could also be rejected. Hotly-debated in 2007 at the shura, the proposal was criticised by some members on religious grounds.
The then deputy president of the council Mahmoud Taiba told local media that changing the weekend was “unacceptable in a country that rules by the Koran and Sunnah and takes them as its constitution,” rebutting the economic reasons as “baseless.”
While there is no debate over Friday – the day when key sermons are given in Islam – whether the second day of the weekend is Saturday or Thursday has been long discussed in Saudi Arabia.
“It’s a practical idea,” says Abdullah al-Abdulkader, a former member of the Shura who now oversees anti-corruption issues in the kingdom. “Business now is seven days, 24 hours because of technology – but it is more practical to arrange the weekend along where the others’ are – for travelling, business dealings, social events, business events.”
Banks and financial institutions typically stick to western working hours in their Treasury operations, says one economist. “But this is never perfect and, of course, delays are caused by the fact that the support services tend to work the Saudi week,” he adds.
Bankers that serve clients in Saudi Arabia end up working most days of the week as they try to fit in with their clients’ schedules, as well as both western weekends and those of Dubai, the financial hub of the Gulf.
While there is some excitement in the business community over a possible change to the weekend, it remains to be seen whether the government will act on the recommendation any time soon.
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