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Founding Day

The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques His Majesty King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud has decreed that from this year Tuesday 22nd February is to be known as Founding Day, and it is to be an annual national holiday in KSA. So what are we commemorating?

Well, back in 1139 Hijri (1727 Gregorian) the first Emirate in what is now Saudi Arabia was formed in the Riyadh area, and was known as the Emirate of Diriyah. The local ruler Imam Mohammed bin Saud, became the first Emir of the new state.

The new emirate was expanded into forming the first Saudi State, and it lasted 94 (91) years. In 1240 (1825) the second Saudi State was established by Imam Mohammed bin Saud’s scion Imam Turki bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Saud, and this lasted until 1309 (1891). The region again descended into disorganisation until in 1319 (1902) the man who was to become King Abdulaziz bin Abdulrahman al Faisal al Saud established the third Saudi state, and was on his way to the eventual creation of the united country (joining of the states of Najd and Hejaz, and inclusion of the regions of Al Ahsa and Asir) in 1350 (1932).

At the founding of the Emirate of Diriyah in 1139 (1727) the territory occupied consisted of the fertile wadi-fed lands around what is modern-day Riyadh. In the following 90-odd years the governed areas under Mohammed bin Saud’s son and grandson expanded to take in much of the current Eastern Province of KSA and all of the Gulf coast from Kuwait through Qatar, the UAE and the eastern seaboard of Oman. Also included were the islands of Bahrain and coastal parts of Iran across the Straits of Hormuz. In the west, the Red Sea coast was reached at a point south of Jeddah, and control spread northwards to include Al Wahj and south to a point near the city of Al Hudaydah in Yemen. At its height, the land area occupied was of a similar size to current KSA control. All this was against the backdrop of the Ottoman empire ruled from Istanbul, and the Ottomans decided that the Al Saud family was getting too big for their liking and so forces from the north and Egypt were sent to dismantle the Saudi state and this was finally achieved with a siege of Diriyah/Riyadh in 1818. The Saudi leaders were disbanded and exiled and the head of the family was executed in Istanbul.

Back to the present, King Salman announced the new holiday 3 weeks before the date, and said that it was to be a public holiday for all Saudi citizens and for the public sector. I’m not sure why this was announced on the 314th (295th) anniversary, if I was in charge I might have held off until the 300th year. But fortunately I’m not in charge and as a non-Saudi I rightly have no say in the matter. It is a curiosity to note that the anniversary day will be the 22nd of February from now on, despite the fact that other holidays and festivals are based on the lunar Hijri calendar and progressively get earlier compared to the Gregorian (solar) calendar. It will be but a matter of four years before Founding Day gets lost in the celebrations and rituals that are the holy month of Ramadan. Similarly, the National Day on 23rd September is fixed in the Gregorian calendar, so is this a trend developing?

This makes for a convenient segue into the situation over in the UAE, where as an Islamic state they follow the same calendar as the Saudis, and have the holy day of prayers on Fridays. Work days, as in KSA are from Sunday to Thursday, and the weekend is Friday and Saturday. Or at least that was the case until a few weeks ago, when the Emirati government announced that the public sector would move to a 4.5 day working week, from Mondays to Friday mornings, and a 2.5 day weekend from Friday afternoons to Sundays. The justification for this radical shift was given in their national media outlet WAM: “The extended weekend comes as part of the UAE government's efforts to boost work-life balance and enhance social wellbeing, while increasing performance to advance the UAE's economic competitiveness”, and “The move is expected to boost not only trading opportunities but also add to the flexible, secure and enjoyable lifestyle the UAE offers to its citizens and residents.” As is the way of the middle eastern world, there was no consultation with industry or citizens, they were at least afforded 3 weeks warning of the seismic changes. Schools and universities quickly followed suit, and the private sector is regearing to match the public sector move. The main Friday prayers have been put back to 1.15pm, to allow citizens finish work and suitably prepare.

I wonder what the Saudis will make of this realignment? Back in 2006 the working week was Saturday to Wednesday with a Thursday/Friday weekend, and both KSA ad the UAE moved things back one day then. So will KSA follow suit? Part of the Saudi Vision 2030 is to develop economically, and there is an active campaign to wean multinational companies from having their middle eastern bases in Abu Dhabi and Dubai transfer to Riyadh and Jeddah. I believe, but I have not seen written confirmation of the fact, that it will soon be a commercial requirement for companies who wish to trade in KSA to have in-country head offices established here as well as their work bases.

In modern day KSA change is now constant, and the new Founding Day is a welcome opportunity to have a day off. It being on a Tuesday doesen’t allow me meaningful leisure opportunities to get away, but there are a few people whom I know who have also taken two further days as annual leave and are rolling this into a big weekend.

What is there to do? Again I turn to the media for information, and the Saudi Press Association (SPA) has announced that an event called “The Beginning” will be held in Riyadh’s Wadi Namar, and this will have 3,500 performers narrating the Kingdom’s history through the three centuries. The National Museum in Riyadh will host several interactive workshops and discussions on the Kingdom’s culture and history from February 22 until February 24; and we are looking forward to seeing a light show, which will include fireworks and drones that will light up the sky of Riyadh at night on February 24.

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* Call Alastair Fyfe directly on 07785 370074 (UK) or +966 503095212