Changing traditions: UAE's Western weekend shake-up

he Abu Dhabi city at sunrise on April 27, 2018 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates [Getty Images]
6 min read
22 December, 2021
With the aim to make UAE more appealing to global markets, Abu Dhabi has decided to change its weekend to fit with the Western standard (Saturday and Sunday). However, this isn't the first time the UAE has upended cultural norms.

Transitioning to a Western-style workweek from January 1, 2022, the UAE will be the first Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) to change its traditional pattern. Though the new weekend will be shorter than the global five-day week work with Friday as a half-day and Saturdays and Sundays off, Abu Dhabi would be better linked with foreign markets.

Having its sights set on going global, the seven-emirate federation has announced 50 new economic initiatives to attract foreign investment worth at least $150 billion only recently. Ostensibly, the new weekend should help on the international scene.

As WAM, the UAE’s state news agency reported, “From an economic perspective, the new working week will better align the UAE with global markets, reflecting the country’s strategic status on the global economic map”.

"Shifting to a Friday-Saturday weekend in 2006, the UAE was the first GCC state to abandon the traditional Thursday-Friday pattern"

However, there are some more implications to this decision.

First, in the Islamic world, Friday is a sacred day of worship, so a Friday-Saturday weekend was thought to be convenient in the GCC states, while Sunday was a working day. Basically, the largest weekly prayer congregation on Friday is held at mid-day so Muslims appreciate being given a day off for worship.

Initially, the GCC work week was from Saturday to Wednesday with Thursday and Friday as the weekend, but this made business transactions difficult with the Western world as it would leave just three banking days in common.

Shifting to a Friday-Saturday weekend in 2006, the UAE was the first GCC state to abandon the traditional Thursday-Friday pattern. Soon other Gulf states followed Abu Dhabi’s example, but the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia had been the last Middle-Eastern country to adopt it in 2013.

Around the world, Muslim countries have ended up with three kinds of weekend options. While countries like Pakistan and Indonesia prefer to follow the Western pattern with Saturdays and Sundays off to facilitate business dealings and banking, GCC states have a workweek with Friday and Saturdays off.

Now with the new weekend timetable, the Abu Dhabi government plans to treat Friday like a half-day to tackle religious sensitivities. Alongside, just to give more time for prayers at noon, people would have the choice to work from home on that day.

Even though 90 percent of the UAE’s 10 million population are expats, the rulers are Sunni Muslims.

Likewise, the Western work week comes from Christianity where Sunday is the main day of worship on which Christians are expected to go to Church to listen to a sermon and attend a community gathering.

Perspectives

Since most Westerners are Christian or non-religious, their workweek is based on the premise that Saturday is to relax and Sunday is a church holiday. Announcing a 40-hour five-day workweek in 1926, the US was one of the first countries to start this trend. In fact, the concept of a weekend was started in the 20th century, before that Sunday was simply given off to attend church.

Second, this change complements the liberalisation the UAE is implementing to make foreigners working or visiting the emirate for business, feel at home. With this new weekly schedule, Abu Dhabi has tilted further towards Western culture.

In many ways, Dubai is much more like Western cities now and prohibitions have been removed on alcohol or cohabitation of unmarried couples, Abu Dhabi has even reduced the severity of punishments for drug offences over the past year.

"From an economic perspective, the new working week will better align the UAE with global markets, reflecting the country’s strategic status on the global economic map"

Introducing long-term or residence visas, as well as opening up passports to high-profile expatriates, the emirates welcomes expats now, especially as many had left during the pandemic.

Another aspect is regional rivalry, what remains to be seen is which of the five other GCC states follow the UAE’s example first. Practically, all GCC states have similar economic goals, to diversify from oil revenue with more tourism and foreign investment in alternate sectors.

The UAE’s workweek switchover would give Dubai-based multinational firms an advantage over other Arab states. According to Mohammed Ali Yasin, chief strategy officer at Al Dhabi Capital, “It could be a good experiment for other countries in the region”.

With the start of the new year, Abu Dhabi will begin the first weekend from Friday afternoon. Being the GCC’s main commercial centre and a popular tourist destination, this move will have an impact on the other Arab states which may reject or emulate its example.

This is especially the case with Riyadh, which has been trying to overtake Dubai as the region’s top business hub for a while. Making travel plans and banking transactions easier, the UAE could become more appealing for foreign investors and executives. Also, the UAE stock exchange will be better connected to other markets.

Considering Saudi Arabia’s rapid shift from traditional norms and traditions, the Kingdom could be the first to follow suit. Nowadays, Riyadh is on its own modernisation drive and rapid changes are taking place.

However, one glitch is that the private sector has been given the option to implement the new weekend or stay with the previous one. Around 10 companies have announced they would shift to the new work week, but to make the government move more effective, most of them would have to comply.

The switch-over would have to be wide-ranging to make the required impact. The UAE Minister of Human Resources and Emiratization, Abdulrahman al-Awar has just simply urged “private companies and establishments to maximize benefits from the new system.”

Apparently, 90 percent of the UAE’s workforce is comprised of foreign national and migrant workers and most of them are not UAE government employees.

Also, as Ziad Daoud, the chief emerging economist at Bloomberg has pointed out, “The decision will make the UAE more attractive as a regional destination for foreign companies. But the appeal of private-sector jobs will further diminish if the 4-1/2 workweek doesn’t extend beyond government entities.”

All federal government entities are to adopt the change and Monday to Thursday office timings would be from 7.30 am to 3.30 pm, while Friday timings would be from 7.30 am to 12 pm as Friday sermons start around 1.15 pm. Government employees would be given the option to work from home on this day, giving more time for prayers.

Sabena Siddiqui is a foreign affairs journalist, lawyer, and geopolitical analyst specialising in modern China, the Belt and Road Initiative, the Middle East, and South Asia. 

Follow her on Twitter: @sabena_siddiqi