What’s In A Weekend? Saudi Arabia Weighs Conservatism Against Commerce

  @JaceyFortin on April 23 2013 11:33 AM
Saudi Arabia Prayer In Mosque
A man reads the Koran at the Al-Masjid al-Nabawi before the early morning prayer of Al-Fajr in the holy city of Medina, Saudi Arabia. Reuters/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

Saudi Arabia has remained largely immune to the turmoil of Arab Spring revolutions. Uprisings, ousters and bloody conflicts have raged all around the kingdom -- but in this oil-rich Gulf state of 28 million, change comes one day at a time.

Now, a two-day reform could be in order. The Shura Council, an advisory body that answers to the Saudi monarchy, decided on Monday to a consider changing the official weekend for public sector employees.

Currently, workers rest on Thursday and Friday. The Shura decision could shift the weekend to Friday-Saturday, putting Saudi Arabia in line with most other states in the Middle East.

The change would improve the ease of doing business in Saudi Arabia. The country currently shares just three work-days with its trading partners in the West, where a Saturday-Sunday weekend is the norm.

Sabria Jawhar, a Saudi columnist and professor based in Jeddah, says that average citizens are unlikely to care about the change.

“As long as Friday remains part of the weekend and everyone can go to the mosque to pray Jum'ah, that is all that really matters. The decision to change the weekend days is really for the business community,” she said.

“Conservatives may not like it because they may perceive it as another step in westernization or emulating the West. They are in the minority, though. No one in rural areas probably cares, and it won't impact their lives to any significant degree.”

But these plans aren't without controversy. The Thursday-Friday weekend is imbued with cultural, historical and religious significance; it was meant to accommodate Jum’ah, a communal prayer held every Friday around noon.

Friday will remain sacred even if the change is approved, but the break with tradition may still offend some of the country’s more conservative clerics.

Taking Sides

When the Shura Council considered its review of the Saudi weekend, 41 of its 150 members voted against it. That won’t be enough to stop the proposal, but it's a clear sign that divisions exist.

The nature of those divisions is hazy, in part because Shura members must be careful about revealing discord.

“There’s been a real reluctance on the part of the Shura to form factions, because that could be seen as a step towards forming political parties, which are illegal in the kingdom,” F. Gregory Gause III, an expert on Saudi politics and professor of political science at the University of Vermont, said.

“But there is a very strong feeling among [conservative] scholars that it’s a bad idea to adopt the customs of non-Muslims.”

A weekend change may seem innocuous, but it all comes down to the conflict between culture and commerce -- and that’s a sensitive subject. Officials in Saudi Arabia are forced to walk a fine line when it comes to religious conservatism, since cultural rigidity poses a threat to economic ties with the West.

Saudi Arabia is the U.S.’ largest trading partner in the Middle East; two-way trade in goods exceeded $73 billion last year, and most of that exchange was in hydrocarbons. Saudi Arabia is the world’s top exporter of petroleum liquids and is home to nearly one-fifth of all proven oil reserves. In 2011, the U.S. imported nearly 1.2 billion barrels of oil per day from Saudi Arabia, or 11 percent of its total petroleum imports.

But energy isn't the only thing linking Saudi Arabia to the West, especially since U.S. oil production is surging and could soon surpass that of the kingdom itself.

Saudi Arabia is a valuable security partner with Western nations. The kingdom is reportedly home to a drone base used by U.S. forces and acts as a bulwark against militant insurgencies in neighboring counties such as Yemen and Iraq, not to mention growing hostilities in nearby Iran. To that end, the U.S. is in negotiations to finalize a $10 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel.

Rocky Relationship

The ties that bind Saudi Arabia to the West put conservative clerics in an awkward position, and the ambivalence goes both ways.

While Western officials tend to gloss over the human rights abuses that take place regularly in Saudi Arabia, Western advocacy groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch regularly condemn the kingdom for its excesses.

Saudi Arabia has been dominated by the un-elected Al Saud dynasty for decades. Current King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, 88, has ruled the country since 2005. The administration’s policies are influenced by Wahhabism, a conservative school of Islam that originated in the country and adheres strictly to the teachings of the Quran.

The monarchy governs in accordance with the Wahhabi interpretation of Shariah, or Islamic law, which is enforced by a religious policing group called the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. Members of this force are referred to colloquially as muttaween, or volunteers, and they're accused of perpetrating myriad human rights abuses against civilians.

It doesn’t help that the court system is plagued by inconsistencies. The judiciary lacks a penal code, and officials often dole out egregiously brutal punishments. Hundreds of people are executed annually for charges including robbery, adultery and even sorcery. Political dissent is also a serious offense, and alleged offenders often suffer long-term detentions without trial.

In addition, women’s rights are sorely lacking. Females are strictly limited in their ability to dress, work, speak or travel independently.

But there are some signs of creeping reform. In January of 2012, King Abdullah appointed Sheikh Abdul Latif Abdul Aziz Al-Sheikh, a moderate cleric, to lead the muttaween. The new chief has since curtailed the group’s power and taken a somewhat softer stance regarding Saudi Arabia’s moral code. And this January, the Shura Council welcomed 30 new female members, though it's unclear how much influence those women wield. In addition, women will finally vote for the first time in 2015 municipal elections.

Could the weekend change be another sign of openness to reform? Given the closed nature of Saudi politics, analysts can only speculate.

“I think [the new weekend] would fit in with that narrative, as long as we remember that we’re starting from a very low bar -- going from no openness to a little bit of openness,” Gause said. “And given the profound conservatism of the establishment, the resistance is going to be framed in almost completely religious terms.”

A Day of Rest

In accordance with the Shura decision, government officials will now look into the possibility of a weekend change. Nothing has been made official yet, and it's worth noting that Monday wasn’t the first time the Shura took up this subject. A Friday-Saturday weekend was first proposed in 2007, but it was struck down for religious reasons.

The importance of Islam and historical traditions can't be overstated in a country that's home to Mecca, the birthplace of Islamic prophet Muhammad. Devout Muslims all around the world turn toward Mecca five times every day for prayer, and millions undertake a sacred pilgrimage to the site every year.

But when it comes to the traditional weekend, a change is in the cards. Trade imperatives make it likely that the measure will pass muster this time around.

“I wouldn't say the Shura Council has been opposed to this, but rather, like all things in Saudi Arabia, these kinds of decisions move at a snail's pace,” Jawhar said. “There really has been no necessity to make the change, but in the last decade or so, the Kingdom has increasingly become a major player in the business sector at an international level. It makes sense that the Shura Council considers this change at this time, to put us on the same timetable as the rest of the world.”

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