Events in the past few months in Saudi Arabia, like elsewhere, have been an eye-opener for all of us and many had to adapt to a changing set of rules within our societies. The lockdowns, curfews and the extreme precautions brought on by the coronavirus has changed much of how we look and do things.
Coupled with the stifling effect of the virus has been the impact on global economies. Saudi Arabia has been no exception, and for a country that mostly relies on its foreign earnings from oil, there has been a tremendous strain on the local economy as oil prices crashed in recent months.
These two factors have contributed to changes within the populace. The impact is obvious in that many people today do not carry on as they did a few months ago. The ever-present dangers of the coronavirus play on many minds, and with face masks being made mandatory in public, it is hard to escape that reality. Then again, rising prices as a result of a three-fold VAT increase to 15 per cent has made the public wary of spending on frivolous or luxury items. These conditions have brought some sanity to the previously unguarded spending habits of most of the younger Saudis.
Social gatherings have been curtailed as are most outings except in the confines of one’s own vehicle. As more and more people become aware of friends and acquaintances contracting the virus, the personal alertness level is heightened and conformity to the protocols listed by the Ministry of Health becomes more visible.
It is no longer an issue of whether employees should be allowed to pray or not. It is all about break times, and at some establishments, they are being abused as they can stretch to almost an hour.
One of the remarkable changes seen during the height of the virus in the kingdom was the non-closure of shops throughout the day, prayer times and otherwise. With a limited window of shopping time during curfew hours and the need to make up for lost revenue, most commercial establishments observed the non-closure during prayer times policy which was gratefully accepted by the public.
This policy which was implemented in the heydays of the religious establishment a few decades ago has been the subject of much criticism in recent times as its inconvenience becomes more and more obvious. To begin with, there is no qualified religious ruling on why establishments should close down for business during prayer times. The only such reference for closing that I know of is that for the Friday prayers. Nowhere else in the region or for that matter around the world is this practice enforced or followed.
With the virus taking precedence over such a practice during these past months, shoppers continued to shop without being uncourteously booted out of establishments during prayer times. Money had to be made to make up for lost revenue, and shopkeepers demanded of their staff to keep the business going. Employees were asked to pray in shifts so as not to disturb the flow of consumerism. With money flowing back into the cash register, it seemed to most consumers that a new shift in social mores had taken place.
As the conventions governing social activity during the pandemic became more relaxed and curfew times were lifted, consumers became aware of an immediate change and that was that some establishments went back into the habit of closing up during prayer breaks.
Now many not living in Saudi Arabia may not understand why that would be such a major issue as prayers are in general a five to 10-minute affair. But try telling that to an individual patiently waiting outside a pharmacy for more than 20 minutes in the summer sun waiting for some much-needed medical supplies while the employees inside are loitering about taking breaks under the guise of religious convictions.
Or tell a motorist whose vehicle needs much-needed fuel that the unmanned fuel stations during prayer times are not an issue. He can clearly see the attendants jawing away in some corner or glued to their smartphones while vehicles line up waiting to be fuelled. The inconvenience to the consumer is unimaginable.
This issue had been previously tabled at the Shoura Council but did not gather enough steam. It is no longer an issue of whether employees should be allowed to pray or not. It is all about break times, and at some establishments, they are being abused as they can stretch to almost an hour.
Let us once and for all join the league of nations and do away with the sham of prayer breaks. Allow employees to observe their prayers in shifts without closure of their shops or businesses and ensure that adequate break times during a working shift in accordance with international standards are observed. Just as the kingdom has made tremendous strides in breaking long-held traditions imposed on Saudi society, it is time for another one of such strides.
— Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Twitter: @talmaeena.