By Ellen Knickmeyer – wsj.com
Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah has ordered most government bodies to switch to a Friday and Saturday weekend, overriding years of objections from religious conservatives about sharing a day off with Christians and Jews.
The king’s decree – announced Sunday on government TV and the state news service – was meant to stop “lost economic opportunities” as a result of being out of sync with the work week of the rest of the world, the king said. Until the new decree, Saudi Arabia has observed a Thursday-Friday weekend.
Leading Saudi businesses are supporting the change, saying it will make companies more productive and competitive. “It does improve the working hours for businesses with international markets,” said Morished al Mutlaq, executive vice president of Saudi Basic Industries Corp., one of the Gulf’s largest companies.
The change also was true to Arab culture, Mr. Mutlaq said, after the king’s decree, since in Arabic Sunday is called al ahed, meaning “the first.”
The king’s decision overrides years of objections from religious conservatives that Saudi Arabia, home of the most important two sites of Islam, should keep a weekend distinct from that of the West.
“We will be copying the Jews and the Christians,” prominent Saudi businessman Abdulrahman al Jeraisy said in 2007, when the king’s Shoura advisory council considered the change.
The Saudi stock exchange, Saudi central bank, and other financial institutions and government ministries would move to a Friday and Saturday weekend starting June 29, the royal decree said.
Schools would make the change with the start of the new academic year, the king said.
Bringing the kingdom’s weekend in line with the rest of the world would “achieve significant gains for the kingdom, particularly in the economic arena,” the decree said.
Friday is the main day of prayer for Muslims. With Sunday’s change, Saudi Arabia, following Oman, becomes the last country in the Gulf Cooperation Council to abandon a Thursday-Friday weekend.
The kingdom has toyed with a Friday-Saturday weekend at least since 2007. The Shoura Council set aside the change that year, in the face of religious objections. Some top government figures had predicted privately as recently as last year that the kingdom would never switch, saying there was domestic opposition to sharing a day off with Christians and Jews.
The Shoura Council took the matter up for study again earlier this year, however. Observers said that signaled a royal will to make the change.
Saudi newspapers have cited informal polls showing a majority of ordinary Saudis and businesspeople support ditching the Thursday-Friday day-off on the grounds of lost productivity.
The Savola Group, a Saudi Arabia food and drink company, announced last week it would begin trialing the Sunday-Thursday weekend internally.