An ongoing debate: Shops closing for prayer in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia recently announced allowing commercial activities to function for 24 hours. But the custom of shops closing during prayer times, five times a day, remains a key issue among wider sections of society. (AN Photo/Ahmad Mahmoud)
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Updated 19 January 2020

An ongoing debate: Shops closing for prayer in Saudi Arabia

  • The issue has been under discussion in many settings among members of Saudi society as of late

JEDDAH: Saudi Arabia has recently announced allowing commercial activities to function for 24 hours, in a new string of promised boosts of business and provide services for all. While the change solves many problems, such as congestion and loss of potential income, many Saudis still debate whether or not it will include the custom of shops closing during prayer time, five times a day. 

A custom that has uniquely defined Saudi Arabia among all Muslim countries, which typically require shops to close only during the weekly Friday prayers, this practice has long been discussed and disputed in society. 

For over 30 years, commercial businesses in Saudi Arabia have shut and locked their doors as soon as the first call of prayer is heard. Cars would queue waiting petrol stations to open, pharmacies were closed, restaurants and supermarkets as well with patrons and visitors forced to wait outside in a manner deemed inconvenient to most people. Prior to the recent reforms which have checked the powers of the now regulated Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV), or religious police as they were commonly known, officers of the CPVPV had the power to arrest and punish shopkeepers for even delaying closing their stores for a few minutes. Punishments ranged from detention, lashing and even deportation if the shop attendant was not Saudi. 

The debate to keep shops and businesses open has been a topic of discussion in many settings amongst members of Saudi society as of late. From Shoura Council members, to businessmen and women and everyday ordinary citizens, with many wondering if the law would stand for all hours of the day.

However, the bigger question is being asked by a new generation of the country’s youth, which form the majority of the population of the Kingdom: Why is it that Saudi Arabia is the only country that enforced this kind of practice, as opposed to just Friday prayers? 

Executive regulations

In 1987, the executive regulations of the CPVPV were issued by the General President of the commission, and the second paragraph of the first article cited the following: “As prayer is the pillar of religion and its hiatus, then the members of the commission must ensure its performance at the specified times in mosques, and urge people to promptly respond to the call for prayer, and they must ensure that shops and stores are closed, and that sales are not done during prayer time.”

Speaking to Arab News, Sheikh Ahmad Al-Ghamdi, the former director of the CPVPV in Makkah, said that the document allowed members of the religious police to take the necessary measures, and many opted to apply what should have only been applicable to Friday prayers to all prayers of the day. 

“This second paragraph of the first article of the Commission’s executive regulations was a discretionary procedure that was not based on a system, as the executive regulations of the Commission are issued by the General President of CPVPV, and its body system does not oblige closing shops during prayer times,” said Al-Ghamdi. “It became a practice that has been established by the Commission, according to the second paragraph of the first article without relying on an established order.”

Dr. Issa Al-Ghaith, a judge, Islamic scholar, a member of Saudi Arabia’s Shoura Council and the King Abdul Aziz Center for National Dialogue, has spoken about the matter a number of times. In a recent article published in Makkah newspaper on Jan. 1, 2020, Dr. Al-Ghaith explained that there is no religious or legal base.

“There is no legal base for closing shops for prayer after amending the bylaws of the authority, noting that forcing shops to close their doors and people to pray right at the beginning of prayer time, and to do this in a mosque, stands no ground neither in Shariah nor in law,” said Dr. Al-Ghaith.

“It is rather a breach of both of them, and an infringement on people’s religious rights (right of Ijtihad and freedom to follow a reference) and worldly rights (freedom of movement, shopping, benefitting of services round the clock without being forced to abide by judicial matters subject to conflict and differences).”




Dr. Issa Al-Ghaith

Religion and laws aside though, it seems there is no clear verdict within society on whether or not the practice of closing shops during prayer times should continue or not.

Speaking to Arab News, a number of female retail workers at one of Jeddah’s biggest shopping malls told of the benefit of closing shops during prayer times. The group of females who requested to stay anonymous told Arab News that it’s not all that it seems to be when shops close.

“Many believe we actually take a break and lounge around for the 20-40 minutes when stores close for prayer times. Rarely do we have that freedom to be honest,” said 25-year-old S.K., a Saudi working in the store for 7 months now. “The mess that customers leave behind is too much to handle during regular open store hours so we take advantage of the time we have and reorganize the store, clean up and replace all clothes on the racks.”

“I agree with my colleague,” said 29-year-old M.A. “We don’t mind the closing hours as things get really hectic especially on holidays and as you can see now during the sale. So we do take the opportunity sometimes and either try to relax in the quiet before we finish whatever it is we need done during that time. We understand people’s frustrations but it helps us.”

“I don’t have the luxury of time unfortunately,” said Rawan Zahid, a mother of three girls and a worker at a private company. “I live close to an hour away from my office and my youngest is 4 months old so I don’t have the luxury of time to go shop after work as the call for Maghreb (sunset) prayers are called and I would rather go home and spend some time with my daughters.”

While juggling her job and family life, Zahid believes that it’s difficult to sustain this for long. “It’s unreasonable in my opinion,” Zahid said. “I think it’s too much of a burden on many people especially those who work long hours of the day. For those who don’t have help to care for their children, it’s very difficult to run simple errands and it’s extremely tiresome.”

 


A travel-experience company has Saudi Arabia’s nature and culture in its sights

Updated 09 August 2020

A travel-experience company has Saudi Arabia’s nature and culture in its sights

  • The Traveling Panther aims to bring the Kingdom’s natural wonders and cultural heritage alive through local narratives
  • The initial focus of the five female Saudi founders is on the Kingdom’s Eastern Province, Asir and the coast of Tabuk

DUBAI: Although the COVID-19 pandemic has brought the global travel, tourism and hospitality industry to a halt, five young Saudi women have found a silver lining.

The Traveling Panther (TTP), a Riyadh-based bespoke travel experience company, has turned to remote and forgotten areas of Saudi Arabia to display the country’s rich history and heritage.

With millions of residents and citizens across the Kingdom staying put for the foreseeable future and local tourism set to take off, their timing could not be better.

“Being a part of an industry that revolves around travel and personal interactions has definitely made things a little difficult today,” said Fahda Bander Al-Saud, TTP co-founder.

“Before the lockdown, the market was ripe with potential – the Kingdom opening up to tourism with the recent launch of the new visas was the start of a new era for the country and an exciting prospect for us as a company. The global lockdown has brought our industry to a near standstill.”

But TTP’s mission was to make the best out of a challenge. Instead of putting operations on hold, it used the time wisely to breathe, refocus, plan and prepare. “There are many things we wanted to develop, from access to a wider variety of facilities, to setting up our experience infrastructure across the Kingdom,” Al-Saud told Arab News.

“Trying to do all of that while also managing visitors and creating incredible experiences is possible, but it’s a bit like laying tracks while the train is moving.

“For all the stress that has come with the coronavirus, there’s also been a small sense of relief – we feel more prepared than ever to deliver on our promise: creating unique luxury experiences for the conscious traveler.”

Before becoming TTP, the young women were considered the “go-to” people for travelers wishing to discover places outside the London or New York norm.

“As world travelers, we were fortunate to experience the top tourist destinations,” Al-Saud said. “When TTP was created, we used our collective knowledge to explore the unexplored, and experience the world outside of what we see on social media.”

TTP has two major milestones: 2015, when the founders visited Cuba right before the embargo was lifted, causing them to reshape the way they thought about travel and starting the company; and 2017, when TTP was formalized and began to do business worldwide.

“We drew on our connections, knowledge and expertise to create one-of-a-kind experiences for select clients throughout Europe, Africa and Asia,” said Manayer Alsharekh, TTP co-founder.

“This was when that we found our two biggest strengths: our focus in engaging the local communities, and our hands-on approach to scouting and trialing all of the locations and experiences we offer. We took those two things and ran with them, and now here we are.”

“We look at everything we do through the lens of sustainability,” she said. “In this way, we ensure that we minimize our impact and help preserve these wonderful experiences for future generations. This is true for all our work, both international and local. We have a long list of destinations on offer, and we’re excited to continue developing that.”

The focus to start with is on Saudi Arabia, namely its Eastern Province, Asir and the coast of Tabuk. “Saudi Arabia has so many incredible experiences just waiting to be seen and explored,” Alsharekh said. “Our hope is to refine and promote as much of the country as possible, both for international and local travelers.”

FASTFACT

103,600sq km

Size of Al-Nafud desert, whose sweeping red dunes make for a picture-postcard setting.

The scouting process includes contacting locals in every area about their favorite locations and gaining a better understanding of the destination from those who know it best. They then look out for adventure sites and hidden gems, from interactions with locals and artisans to natural treasures and local cuisines.

“We research potential local partners at each destination and utilize their destination management services,” she said. “The TTP team then visits the destination on a test trip to see the quality and standard of our partners’ services. We then weave everything we’ve learned into a full experience for our clients.”

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has brought the global travel, tourism and hospitality industry to a halt, five young Saudi women have found a silver lining. (Supplied)

The process allows TTP to design the ideal trip for their customers, and gives them the confidence that everything has been taken care of well before their arrival.

Through these trials, the young women got to know the beauty of their own country. “We discovered the cultural diversity and natural wonders that exist within the Kingdom’s 13 regions, from topography and dialect to cuisine and attire,” Al-Saud said.

“We discovered that each locale has its own flavor and unique splendor. This is exciting for us to showcase, as you can completely immerse yourself in the culture and see the destination in its truest form.”

The women aim to display the natural wonders and incredibly diverse culture the Kingdom has to offer, from the towering snow-capped mountains of Tabuk and the lush green valleys of Asir, to the coral reefs in the Red Sea and the mangroves in the Gulf.

When people imagine Saudi Arabia, tropical seafronts are not the first thing that comes to mind. “And yet off of its western coast, there are white sandy beaches, atolls and incredible coral reefs,” said Al-Saud.

“There are whole towns in the mountains at risk of flooding from the amount of rainfall they get every year for as long as they’ve existed. In the north, entire regions are filled with lush farmland and, on both coasts, beautiful mangroves have been thriving for ages.

“Yet if you relied on common knowledge, you would think the Empty Quarter is characteristic of the entire country. There is just so much beauty,” Al-Saud said. “The Traveling Panther doesn’t just want to showcase it, we want to explore every inch of it ourselves.

“Everything that’s happening now isn’t just opening the region up to the international community but is also benefiting locals who are beginning to see what their country has to give. That’s what we’re most excited about.”

Every year, TTP scouts out and expands into one or two new destinations internationally and locally. “Saudi Arabia has its own strategy because we see it as tourism’s final frontier,” Alsharekh said.

TTP is building these destinations by engaging the local community and raising awareness for conscious tourism. It is supporting the Saudi tourism industry within each of the regions by consulting, designing, and developing experiences and services to bring them up to international standards.

The company also aims to build a community of individuals that share a love of travel and exploration. “The community will be built on the spirit of collaboration and the joy of discovery,” she said.

“This is a long-term, far-reaching project that we’re very excited about, and we’re finding that it is developing naturally just through our day-to-day interactions with clients, partners and personal connections.”

Although there is much international and local curiosity about Saudi Arabia, Al-Saud said, there is not much knowledge about where to go and what to do given the country’s recent opening. “As nationals, we feel it’s our responsibility to showcase our Kingdom’s beauty and tell its tales through local narratives,” she said.

She described the group as “experience hunters”, whose restless nature as travelers fuels their love of exploration and finding the perfect destinations and moments.

“We love to perfect these experiences and then share them with the world,” Al-Saud said. “Think Indiana Jones, but instead of finding relics, we find moments.”

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Twitter: @CalineMalek