SAUDI ARABIA’S Shura Council, an unelected proto-parliament, agreed on April 22nd to consider a proposal to switch the country’s official weekend from Thursday and Friday to Friday and Saturday. The idea was first mooted in 2007, but was blocked by the council. Some members of the conservative Islamic clergy apparently opposed it on the grounds that it would mean observing the same weekend as the Jews—whose Sabbath lasts from Friday evening to Saturday evening—and might even be a step towards embracing the Saturday-Sunday weekend observed by Christians. So why is Saudi Arabia once again thinking of moving its weekend?
Although the seven-day week dates back at least as far 2350BC—when it was first formalised by Sargon I, king of the Mesopotamian empire of Akkad—the two-day weekend is a more a recent development. For much of history, the norm, first established by the Bible, was to work for six days and rest only on the seventh. For Jews and early Christians, that day was Saturday. When the Roman Empire embraced Christianity, Constantine the Great switched it to Sunday—some say in order to attract converts from the eastern religions who worshipped the Sun. A few hundred years later, the Koran fixed Friday as Islam’s holy day, on which Muslims must gather at midday for communal prayer—though there is no particular requirement to rest. But the idea of a two-day weekend is a product of modern day labour laws. (Indeed, Saudi Arabia is only now mulling legislation that would give private-sector employees the same rights to two days off that public-sector workers now enjoy.) While much of the Middle East established Friday to Saturday weekends, a clutch of Gulf and north African countries took off Thursday and Friday instead. Yet as the economic cost of sharing only three working days (Monday to Wednesday) with international trading partners became increasingly apparent, most switched to Friday and Saturday. The most recent country to do so was Oman, on May 1st.
Saudi Arabia boasts the region’s biggest economy and largest stockmarket. As it tries to promote itself as a regional financial hub, it is paying an especially high price for keeping its calendar out of sync with its neighbours. Opinion polls suggest most Saudis approve of ditching the current weekend. Business has been pressing for change for years. And some private companies are taking unilateral action: the Savola group, a Saudi company that is one of the Middle East’s biggest conglomerates, is considering moving its weekend from the middle of this year to facilitate its operations with the rest of the region.
The issue has become a national topic of debate. Although there is no religious proscription against working on a Thursday, traditionalists balk at change. The switch may still not be approved; the Saudi gerontocracy has been notoriously slow to reform. But as the cost to Saudi Arabia’s economy becomes ever clearer in difficult economic times, the pressure to fall in line will continue to mount. As one of the few countries still resisting the change, commercial interests will probably trump conservatism eventually.