UAE to shift weekend and create shorter working week

The United Arab Emirates government is shifting the national weekend to Saturday and Sunday to synchronise with global markets, instituting a four-and-a-half day working week from January next year.

Changes to the working week, which at present runs from Sunday to Thursday, are intended to “boost work-life balance and enhance social wellbeing, while increasing performance to advance the UAE’s economic competitiveness”, the government said in a statement.

The new arrangements would “align the UAE with global markets, ensuring smooth financial, trade and economic transactions with other countries that follow a Saturday/Sunday weekend”, it said.

The move is the latest in a series of changes by the oil-rich Gulf state to make itself more attractive to expatriate staff, boost its recovery from the pandemic and better compete with Saudi Arabia.

The move, which the UAE says is the first global shift away from the standard five-day week, applies to UAE federal entities, which will work from 7.30am to 3:30pm on Monday to Thursday and from 7.30am to 12 noon on Friday.

The Dubai government said it would follow suit. The emirate’s education regulator said on Twitter that the private education sector would also adopt the new working week. It said it would work to “ensure a smooth transition” in a move likely to persuade the private sector to make similar arrangements.

Employees would be able to work from home on Fridays or arrange hours on a flexitime basis, the statement added.

The UAE said Friday sermon and prayers, an important day of collective Islamic worship and family gathering, would start at 1.15pm across all seven emirates. The shift — first suggested earlier this year — triggered resistance from some conservative Muslim segments of the population. The government in May dismissed social media rumours of a change to the weekend as “fake news”.

But officials have been determined to press ahead, as the Gulf state seeks to modernise its economy and diversify away from oil dependency. “The message being sent is clear: this is no longer an Islamic country, but an international country where all religions coexist,” said one senior businessman.

About 90 per cent of the 10m population are foreigners. The UAE has introduced other reforms to align itself more closely with international norms. These changes include allowing unmarried couples to cohabit, opening local family law courts aligned with expatriates’ home jurisdictions and permitting foreigners to own businesses without the need for a national partner. Other suggested policy reforms include deeper judicial reform, the opening of casinos and the decriminalisation of homosexuality.

Changes in the UAE have been accelerating since neighbouring Saudi Arabia, which is instituting its own social and economic reforms, began targeting some of the businesses and sectors that have thrived for decades in the UAE.

The kingdom, for example, has told multinationals they risked losing government contracts if they did not relocate regional headquarters to Riyadh by 2023. UAE officials have shrugged off concerns about heightened regional economic rivalry. “Competition is good,” said one. “It makes us strive to improve.”

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