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The Monday Blues Come to the UAE. Will the Saudis Follow?

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Now that the United Arab Emirates plans to switch to a Monday-Friday workweek in line with international convention, will Saudi Arabia follow? The short answer: Probably, but not right away.

The Gulf Arab neighbors, long the closest of political allies, are locked in a fierce economic contest, and the Saudis will be wary of allowing the Emiratis to gain an advantage from the calendar change. But Riyadh must reckon with complex cultural sensitivities and demographic realities at home.

Starting Jan. 1, state employees in the UAE will start their weeks on Monday instead of Sunday. The workweek will be four-and-half days; Friday, a holy day in Islam, will be a half day, the Emirati government said. All schools, public and private, will also make the change.

Private companies aren’t obliged to follow suit, but many will. The switch won’t be a great imposition on companies in the energy sector, which already follows a Monday-Friday workweek in line with global oil markets. Nor will it disrupt the UAE’s huge tourism industry, which caters to an international clientele. Companies will find ways to compensate employees who are inconvenienced by having to keep working on Sundays because they deal with businesses across the Arabian Peninsula.

The government has said the change will allow the UAE to align more closely with global markets. It follows other recent moves, such as the easing of visa and residency rules, designed to make the country more attractive to foreign investors and workers and strengthen its claim to being the Middle East’s most important business center.   

That is an assertion the Saudis are determined to challenge. The kingdom’s de-facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, eager to wean Saudi Arabia from overdependence on hydrocarbon exports, wants to diversify the economy into sectors where the UAE currently excels, from tech and tourism to transportation and logistics.

Saudi Arabia is pursuing aggressive policies to catch up with UAE. Saudi officials are talking to thousands of companies around the world about opening regional headquarters in the kingdom, offering tax breaks and other incentives. The Saudis are also playing hardball: Starting in 2024, government and state-backed institutions will stop signing contracts with foreign companies that base their Middle East headquarters elsewhere in the region.

So if the change in the workweek does give the Emiratis an edge, no matter how small, the Saudis will want to neutralize it. But they must first contend with challenges stemming from important differences between the two countries.

For one thing, Saudi Arabia has a much larger population — just shy of 35 million, compared with nearly 10 million in the UAE — and expatriates make up a much smaller proportion (a third, compared with nearly 90% in UAE). While the overwhelming majority of those who live in places like Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah come from countries where a Monday-Friday workweek is the norm, most people in Saudi Arabia have never been on that schedule.

Saudi society also is much more conservative, especially in matters of religion. Although the crown prince has used his near-absolute power to stifle clerical opposition to his rulings — earlier this year, for example, he barred the use of loudspeakers to amplify prayers and sermons at mosques — he may face some resistance to the idea of working on Fridays, even half days.

The last time the UAE adjusted its workweek, changing from a Thursday-Friday weekend to Friday-Saturday in 2006, the Saudis took a full six years to follow suit. Competitive pressures will likely reduce the response time now, but don’t expect Riyadh to rush order a change in its calendars.

More From Other Writers at Bloomberg Opinion:

• How Saudi Arabia Can Thrive in a Post-Oil World: David Fickling

• Saudi-UAE Split Won’t End Until the World Goes Green: Meghan L. O’Sullivan

• Will Saudi Arabia and Iran Make Peace Over Yemen?: Hussein Ibish

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and Africa.

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