Reform moves slowly in Saudi Arabia, but after six years of to-ing and fro-ing a royal decree issued by octogenarian ruler King Abdullah in June officially moved the kingdom’s weekend to Friday and Saturday.
The decision to shift its working week brings the world’s largest oil exporter in sync with the GCC’s five other member states. The most recent of these to make the change prior to Saudi was Oman, which on 1 May also ended its attachment to the Thursday-Friday weekend.
The change in Saudi Arabia, which by coming into effect on 26 June was de facto immediate, promises to have far-ranging implications on everything from stock markets, to international trade, to employment policy.
While the suddenness of the king’s announcement on the matter will likely have caught some observers off-guard, the switch is the result of years of negotiations within Saudi’s political machinery.
“Once you saw that Oman switched, it was inevitable that Saudi was going to switch,” says Kevin Connor, co-ordinating partner at US law firm Squire-Sanders’ Middle East and North Africa practice, which is based in Riyadh. “If you look at it in the broad spectrum of what’s been happening in the kingdom — it’s part and parcel of the overall approach of the government, and you can see what’s been happening.” The reforms Connor refers to include Saudi’s Nitaqat programme, designed to boost employment among citizens, as well as the easing of restrictions on Saudi women finding work.
As it stands, the change in weekend technically only applies to the kingdom’s public sector, although this in itself encompasses a huge number of related entities, including the stock exchange, the financial sector regulator, and even Saudi Aramco, the world’s biggest oil company, which is owned by the state.
Connor, who believes the switch is “hugely positive”, says his office will be moving to the new weekend immediately and expects others in the private sector to follow suit. “Most of the [reasons] relate to communications, economics, productivity, and being able to effectively interface with the global community,” he explains. “Can you imagine the banks open for that additional day? Just think about the volume of transactions, buy/sell orders, logistics, and another day connected to not only the Gulf, but the rest of the world.”
King Abdullah would appear to concur with this school of thought, with the royal decree stating that the change would seek to “put an end to negative effects and lost economic opportunities”.
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