Saudi Arabia grapples with surprisingly complicated politics of weekends

April 22, 2013

An investor monitors stocks at the Saudi Investment Bank in Riyadh. (FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images)

Congratulations, Saudi Arabia: after six years of debate, you have formally approved a study to examine the merits of changing your weekend from Thursday-Friday to Friday-Saturday. The study is widely expected to encourage the weekend shift, making today's decision the government's first-ever signal that it is willing to move ahead with the new weekend. The change is expected to boost your economy by bringing Saudi businesses into line with the regional work-week of Sunday through Thursday, inching your society a bit further away from inward-looking traditionalism and toward the outward-facing modernity.

The politics of weekends can get complicated in Saudi Arabia, part of a larger, long-running, internal negotiation over the kingdom's national identity and values.

When the national Shoura Council first considered the change in 2007, it was struck down, rejected as an unacceptable compromise of national fealty to the country's founding principles. "The proposal for changing the weekend is unacceptable in a country that rules by the Koran and Sunnah and takes them as its constitution," the deputy Shoura president at the time said, as Saudi journalist Ahmed Al Omran recalls today. (Omran also says that, though some English-language outlets are reporting today's vote as approving the new weekend, they have in fact only approved the study, although that is expected to pave the way for formal approval.)

Business leaders in Saudi Arabia, then as now, protested that the unusual weekend hobbles commerce, shuttering stores and banks during 20 percent of the Arab world's normal business days. World energy markets, which run on the Western Monday-Friday work-week, share only 60 percent of their work-days with Saudi Arabian financial institutions. Only Oman joins Saudi Arabia in maintaining a Thursday-Friday weekend, long the norm in the Arab world, but is changing the date soon.

Still, Omran points out, the weekend change requires the approval of another government body, the Council of Ministers, before it can actually be implemented. "Don’t expect it to happen soon," he writes on Twitter.

This is not the first time that Saudi Arabia's sleepy political system has grappled with the tension between tradition and modernity, between the past and the present. The development of Mecca, its gaudy skyline and effort to attract shopping tourism as well as religious pilgrims, have sparked national debate over how to balance the ancient city's heritage with its commercial potential. But that conversation, like the weekend issue that the country is revisiting today, is part of a much bigger and more complicated sort of national identity crisis. Still, for all the apparent exigence of that national conversation, it seems to be proceeding slowly, like so many things in Saudi politics.

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Max Fisher | April 22, 2013