By Rob L. Wagner
16 October 2016
Jeddah – An effort to shorten evening prayer times in anticipation of a potential government regulation to close retail shops at 9pm is gaining traction among consumers who could gain an extra hour of shopping.
Officials with the Saudi ministries of Social Development, Labour and Commerce and business leaders met recently to discuss the logistics and ramifications of closing shops and some grocery stores at 9pm. Pharmacies and restaurants would be exempt under the proposal.
Saudi Arabia is accustomed to the nightlife to avoid shopping during the day when temperatures can be extremely high. Businesses generally remain open until midnight with restaurants open as late as 3am.
Special exemptions are being considered for the holy cities of Medina and Mecca, which are all-night cities given the heavy around-the-clock influx of umrah and haj pilgrims and Muslim tourists. Shops generally would be exempted from closing early during Ramadan.
The recommendation, introduced in 2014, has been met with criticism from the business community. Business leaders see a potential drop in sales, which comes at a time when the Saudi government is attempting to improve the economy by generating non-oil revenue and encouraging consumer confidence.
While business owners warily look at the early closure proposal, shoppers appear to welcome the change in how long shops close for prayer.
Abeer, a 31-year-old mother of two boys and who asked that her family name not be published, said her shopping excursions generally begin immediately after Asr — the afternoon prayer — which gives her about a three-hour window to conduct family business without interruption. Every business in Saudi Arabia closes its doors during prayer times during the day and early evening, generally for about 30 minutes.
Sitting at a coffee stand across from a closed oud shop at the Al- Salaam Mall during Maghrib — the prayer just after sunset — Abeer said Saudis and expatriate workers schedule their lives around prayer times, adapting easily to waiting for business to resume.
“It’s no bother,” she said. “I pray at the women’s mosque here in the mall, have my coffee and wait. It’s time to relax.”
She noted, however, that her two preschool-age boys make it a challenge to arrive at the mall early enough to do shopping. It is always a rush to get shopping completed before the final prayer of the day. “I see nothing wrong with shortened prayer times. It gives me an extra hour to get things done,” Abeer said.
A shop manager in charge of a men’s clothing store at Al-Salaam, who asked not to be identified, said the store could use the extra time to boost sales. “To be honest, most of us don’t need the 25 minutes to go and pray,” he said.
The manager also noted that his two non-Muslim employees are idle for a total of about one-and-a-half hours from Asr, which starts around 3.40pm this time of the year, through Isha, which begins around 7.35pm.
Although consumers may welcome shorter evening prayer time closures, they are less than enthusiastic about closing shops at 9pm. The goals of early closing times are two-fold: To boost Saudisation that puts more Saudis in the workplace by making working hours more attractive and to help employees with daytime jobs to get to work on time. The proposal, in effect, would dramatically reorganise the life of workers and shoppers.
“It’s not practical for people to go shopping in the middle of the afternoon when it’s the hottest part of the day,” said Irfan Mohammed, 44, an expat worker. “Besides, my colleagues and I get off at 5 o’clock. Even with shorter times for Salat, there would not be enough time to take care of my chores before businesses close at 9.”
Some restaurant owners fear the early closing times will have a ripple effect on their businesses because there will be less customer traffic in and around their location once retail shops close. “People naturally go to dinner after they shop,” said one manager of a Chinese restaurant just a block off Tahlia Street, Jeddah’s most lively retail centre. “Our dinner rush hour at 11 would disappear.”
One Saudi businessman said stores closing at 9 is no big deal. “Change is hard for people but they will get over,” he said. “We always adapt.”