That Friday feeling

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UAE moves weekend to edge over rivals

The United Arab Emirates' move to a Western-style Saturday-Sunday weekend is an attempt to maintain its edge over rising regional competitors, particularly Saudi Arabia, experts said.

The wealthy state surprised many with Tuesday's announcement, which will make it the only Gulf country not to observe weekends on a Friday, the Muslim day of prayer, and Saturday.

The UAE also said it was reducing its official working week to four-and-a-half days, with employees at government bodies to finish at noon on a Friday.

Although the changes were only mandated for the public sector and schools, analysts expect private companies to follow suit, at least with the Saturday-Sunday weekend.

The shift is clever, they say, as it brings the UAE into line with global practices and also makes it a more desirable location for foreign workers and businesses.

Competition is hotting up as neighbouring Saudi Arabia, seeking to diversify its oil-reliant economy, tries to turn its capital into an international centre in the mould of Dubai.

Last year, the Saudis threw down the gauntlet by saying they would not sign contracts with companies that have their regional headquarters outside the kingdom.

"The pragmatic economic calculation behind this decision is to better align the UAE's economy with global business standards," said Robert Mogielnicki, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

"The softer side", however, has to do with "liveability and well-being".

"The UAE wants to retain its position as the region's preferred hub for international businesspeople, expatriate residents and tourists. Adjusting the work week is just one of the myriad ways the UAE is trying to keep its competitive edge," Mogielnicki said.

'Several steps ahead'

Driven by its oil wealth, the former British protectorate has left behind its humble beginnings of tents and simple mud-brick houses to become, over five decades since its formation in 1971, one of the biggest players in the Middle East.

The UAE has been continuously amending its laws in the past few years, presenting itself as a modernising force in a largely conservative region.

It has lifted a ban on unmarried couples living together, loosened restrictions on alcohol, offered long-term residency and struck a normalisation deal with Israel to harness the power of the two major economies.

"UAE is going global, and is aligning with what prevails in most of the countries in the world", said Emirati professor of political science Abdulkhaleq Abdulla.

A similar, if more limited, loosening-up is underway in Saudi Arabia, which now allows women to drive and has eased its strict Islamic dress code.

"Given the ongoing social liberalisation in Saudi Arabia, recent decisions coming out of the UAE reflect an attempt to stay several steps ahead of Saudi Arabia," Mogielnicki said.

Dubai 2, Dubai 3

Nasser Saidi, founder of a regional economic consultancy firm, says the weekend shift represents a "major reform that will result in greater international integration, and in particular economic and financial integration of the UAE economy".

While becoming the only Gulf country not to have a Friday-Saturday weekend, the UAE now comes into line with the non-Arab world.

"It will mean international synchronisation for businesses" with the majority of countries in the US, Europe and Asia, and with financial and oil markets, added the ex-chief economist of the Dubai International Financial Centre.

Under the new timetable, the public sector weekend starts at noon on Fridays and ends on Sunday. Friday prayers at mosques will be held after 1:15 pm. The UAE observed a Thursday-Friday weekend until 2006, when it switched to Fridays and Saturdays.

For Abdulla, the latest move is all about staying ahead of the game.

"The UAE, and Dubai in particular, have always been a trendsetter, a role model in the region," he said.

"Dubai is 10 steps ahead, but there is room in the region for a Dubai 2, Dubai 3 and more."

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