TEHRAN BLOG: Controversy over Iran's two-day ‘Dubai’ weekend adoption

TEHRAN BLOG: Controversy over Iran's two-day ‘Dubai’ weekend adoption
/ bne IntelliNews
By bne Tehran bureau May 16, 2024

Iran’s parliament (known as the Islamic Consultative Assembly or Majlis) has approved a proposal to implement a two-day weekend for government employees, marking a significant shift in the country's workweek structure after years of debate and opposition from groups opposed to any form of rationalisation of the economy. The plan, awaiting approval from the hardline Guardian Council, designates Fridays and Saturdays as official days off and reduces the workweek to 40 hours.

This legislative move follows years of debate and recommendations from economic experts who have argued that Iran's working hours are disproportionately high compared to developed countries and that productivity remained stubbornly poor despite the opening hours. However, proponents of the two-day weekend believe it will enhance productivity and align Iran’s schedule more closely with international norms like other countries in the Persian Gulf Arabian countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Kuwait. Even the home of Islam, Saudi Arabia, switched to a Friday-Saturday weekend in 2013, despite opposition in that country, to align with its regional neighbours and connect with the global economy.

However, this decision has sparked considerable controversy, particularly among hardline groups who view the alignment with international weekends as a threat to Iran’s Islamic and cultural identity; they want a unique Thursday-Friday weekend concoction.

Debate highlights

During the parliamentary session, advocates and opponents of the change engaged in what could be called a spirited debate. Opponents loudly expressed concerns that the new weekend structure would disrupt Iran's work culture and social life, without giving much in terms of data to suggest their argument was right. Those hardliners argued that Friday and Saturday holidays could lead to a three-day weekend when combined with the traditionally less productive Thursdays, potentially harming the economy. Earlier, even more hardline elements, including the mouthpiece newspaper of the Supreme Leader, antisemitic Kayhan, suggested that the weekend move brings Iran in line with Israel’s Sabbath.

Outside the main chamber, Hossein Shariatmadari, the editor-in-chief of Kayhan: "Unfortunately, this resolution, contrary to the supporters' views, not only lacks economic justification but also insults the sacred system of the Islamic Republic."

He added: "How many business centres and traders actually have commercial interactions with America and Europe…Most importantly, Saturday is the official holiday of the Jews, and the sacred Islamic system should not be accused of aligning with them."

He added that the Office of the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is not opposed to the weekend changes.

Shariatmadari concluded in his deadpan fashion: “The time difference between us and Europe is about 3 to 4 hours, and with America and Oceania, it can be more than 15 hours. Therefore our day in Iran coincides with their night. Should we close our days and work at night to align with Western countries and not fall behind in keeping pace with the Jews?”

The comments have hit a nerve with many, as Jews in Iran take Saturday off in the Grand Bazaar as part of their religious requirements. Despite this, their communities have had no say in the decision by the parliament to align with regional norms. Comments criticising the decision as a Jewish plot by Shariatmadari were immediately rebuffed by many on social media defending the community. Although dwindling in numbers as result of emigration to the US and Israel, Tehran's Jewish community remains a constant fixture of the business community and local fabric.

Meanwhile, supporters of the change in the parliament countered that Iran's current work schedule is longer than that of many other countries and that aligning the weekend with international standards would prevent economic losses. They cited an estimated $8bn annual loss due to misaligned weekends and stressed that the change would improve Iran's global economic interactions. With Iran’s economy in the doldrums due to successive years of sanctions and mismanagement at home, any net saving these days is welcomed by groups, including the Chamber of Commerce, which is pushing for the weekend change.

Cultural and economic concerns

Hardline critics, many of whom do not trade outside the country, argue that preserving Islamic and Iranian identity should be a red line – often missing the point that Saudi Arabia, which hosts both Holy sites of Islam, has already moved to a regional agreed weekend. They questioned whether the Islamic Republic should model itself after other Muslim countries that have adopted Saturday and Sunday as holidays for economic reasons, often abandoning their Islamic identity in the process. In a hint towards Turkey, which moved its weekend to the Western one during the founding of the Turkish Republic, hardliners in Iran see their western neighbour as having shed its Islamic identity.

Hossein Khan Babazadeh from Hardline Jahan News said that the decision by Parliament, made in the final days of its term with nearly 70 members absent, was rushed and based on weak arguments. He highlighted that 174 current representatives will not be part of the next parliament, casting doubt on the longevity and legitimacy of this decision. It remains to be seen whether the hardline critic will be able to kybosh the move.

For decades Iranians have adjusted to a Thursday and Friday weekend, with traditions and ceremonies tied to these days. Critics argue that a decision by a few representatives, based on relatively weak arguments, is not a valid reason to disrupt the societal order. Iran has a sizeable number of public holidays compared to many other countries. The Islamic Republic observes approximately 27 public holidays per year, which include a mix of pre-Islamic and Islamic holidays. These holidays commemorate important events in Islamic history, such as Nowruz (the Persian New Year), religious observances like Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, and national events like the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. Compared to Saudi Arabia, with 11; Turkey, with 14; the UAE, with 14, and Shi’ite Iraq, with 17, Iranians are some of the least productive people in the region.

Economic arguments and realities

Proponents argue that aligning with international weekends will boost economic ties, especially with Europe. However, as some parliament members have stated, 85% of Iran’s foreign trade is with Muslim countries and only 15% with others. The spokesperson for the Parliament’s Economic Development Committee noted that no Iranian company directly trades with the West or Europe; such transactions are managed through offices in Dubai and Oman. Furthermore, customs and ports operate around the clock, with only 3% of trade involving Western countries.

On the back of the debate on May 16, Mazandaran MP Mohammad Ali Mohseni Bandpei said: “The details regarding which agencies, organisations and institutions will be closed on Saturdays will be determined according to the government's regulations,” Khabar Online reported. He added: "The main issue was that we concluded, based on more research and expert opinions, that having Saturday as a holiday would be more economically beneficial for the country than Thursday."

Mohseni Bandpey explained: "Now, we must see the Guardian Council's opinion based on the Constitution and Sharia. This law had many supporters and opponents, and the atmosphere in Parliament was very tense today. Despite it being the final days of the Eleventh Parliament, and even though the Parliament may not have the energy to review topics thoroughly, the representatives of the eleventh term are still sensitive to the issues occurring in the country until the last working day. Both supporters and opponents expressed their views, and it was approved that Saturdays will be a holiday, pending the Guardian Council's opinion."

Finally, he said: "A major argument was that we should allow the government to determine the five working days. However, this would create issues and inconsistencies across the country."