For years the United Arab Emirates workforce, like most Persian Gulf nations, has worked Sunday-Thursday with a weekend on Friday and Saturday. But today (Dec. 7) the government announced it will move its weekend to Saturday and Sunday, with a half-day of rest on Friday.
The decision marks a shift for a country that is trying to expand its economy and become more competitive internationally. The UAE in September unveiled plans for 50 new economic initiatives with the goal of attracting $150 billion in direct foreign investment over the next decade. The new schedule is “in line with the UAE’s vision to enhance its global competitiveness across economic and business sectors, and to keep pace with global developments,” the government said in a statement.
While shifting the weekend could help move the needle in making the UAE more attractive to international investors, it may also prove tricky to pull off. The government will enforce the Saturday-Sunday weekend in the public sector, but it will be up to private sector firms to decide for themselves whether to make the transition.
The concept of a weekend didn’t emerge until the 20th century, when labor unions in the US and UK lobbied for a five-day week to improve conditions for workers. Workers were traditionally given off Sundays to attend church and in the US, Jewish factory workers lobbied for Saturdays off to acknowledge the Sabbath. By 1940 a 40-hour-work-week was enshrined in US law.
The International Labour Organization also adopted a convention supporting a 35-hour work week around this time and Muslim-majority countries fell in line during the second half of the 20th century, taking off Friday to accommodate a day of rest and prayer. Friday is a sacred day of worship in the Muslim faith, designated in the Qu’ran as “Al-Jumah.” The UAE said in its announcement that the designated half-day on Friday will still be reserved for sermons and prayers starting at 1:15pm.
In moving its weekend to Saturday and Sunday, UAE officials said the country will better align with global markets. The government is also touting the transition to a four-and-a-half day week as a means of improving work-life balance at a time when the potential benefits of shorter work weeks are being explored by other countries. A study of a four-day work week trial in Iceland released in July showed promising results, with participants reporting that reducing work hours had a positive impact on their lives without taking a hit on productivity.
The UAE has been a leader among Gulf nations in rethinking its work week, first electing to transition from a Thursday-Friday weekend to a Friday-Saturday weekend in 2006. Saudi Arabia followed suit in 2013 and is now viewed as one of the UAE’s most formidable economic competitors.
It’s not clear yet whether the UAE’s new work week will have a direct positive impact on its economy, though. Ziad Daoud, a chief emerging market economist with Bloomberg, said the appeal of private-sector jobs in the UAE could potentially diminish if the four-and-a-half-day work week doesn’t extend beyond public employees.
What’s more, 90% of the UAE’s workforce is made up of foreign nationals, making the country’s economy heavily dependent on migrant workers from Africa, Asia, and other parts of the Middle East. These workers have historically been subject to low wages and unsafe working conditions, and if a shorter work week is reserved for a select group of UAE employees it’s unlikely the policy would have a major impact on the much larger foreign labor force.