Sundays Off: U.A.E. Changes Its Weekend to Align With West

“Once again, the Emirates sets itself as a pioneering country that’s looking to the future in a brave and flexible way,” said Nabil al-Qadi, president of Khawarizmi International College, a private university in Abu Dhabi, the Emirati capital. “I don’t see any conflict between the decision and religion or the fact that Friday is a holy day.”

While the U.A.E. has become more liberal socially, politics are a very different matter. The country is a federation of seven monarchies, where dissenting voices are rarely heard or tolerated.

Top-down decision-making gives the ruling sheikhs unchallenged control over policy, which can yield sharp turns that surprise U.A.E. residents and the rest of the region. One landmark moment came in September 2020 when the emirates announced they would normalize relations with Israel, a step that most other Arab countries — and all other Gulf states — have opposed, or at least been reluctant to take.

“The Emirates has always had its own vision and way,” said Abdullah Baabood, an Omani academic and former director of the Gulf Research Center at Cambridge, pointing primarily to its decision and the speed with which it pursued normalizing relations with Israel. “And many of these matters are somewhat perplexing for the average Arab citizen.”

But for many living in the U.A.E., Tuesday’s announcement introduced another tantalizing prospect. At a time when the pandemic has prompted renewed conversations around flexible working styles and four-day workweeks, changing the weekend and making Friday a half day appears to offer a more manageable schedule and a longer break.

“I like it because I work with my foreign offices in Europe and now we’re aligned,” said Yasmeen Seif, an American-Egyptian communications director for a luxury fashion company. She moved to Dubai, the largest city in the Emirates, 13 years ago, and found a place that embraced elements of both sides of her identity — a place that was Arab and has appeal and good marketing, she added.

“All I hear people talking about now is what are we going to do about the Friday brunch,” she said.