Saudi Arabia is opening its doors to tourists while keeping some laws unchanged, even though they could affect oblivious visitors.
This includes a law that forces all malls, restaurants, cafés, gas stations, and even hospitals across the country to shut down during the call for adhan (Islamic prayer) and throughout prayer time. It's a religious duty for Muslims to pray five times a day, with the duration of each prayer ranging from five to 15 minutes, meaning these public facilities close down at least two to three times a day.
Earlier this week, a video in which a Korean tourist criticized this specific rule started making the rounds online. In it, the young man can be seen walking in a pretty empty local street while complaining about shops and restaurants being closed during prayer time.
"I wanted to have lunch but the restaurants were closed again. None of the doors are open. It is written there that the shop is open 24 hours but it is closed," he says.
The tourist then alludes to the fact that closures are exceeding the time it takes to perform prayer. "It is driving me crazy. In Saudi Arabia they always have long prayer times. You can't go out for lunch or dinner. Do I need to buy something to eat earlier?" he complained.
A segment of the tourist's video circulated on Saudi Twitter and divided people's opinions.
"You've got to respect the values, traditions and religions of the countries you visit for tourism or any other reason," one online user wrote.
Others thought the tourist had a point in what he said, adding that authorities must reverse the law and allow public amenities to open during prayer times. One of them tweeted out, writing:
"He's right. This rule doesn't exist anywhere outside of Saudi Arabia, not even in other Muslim countries... so are we the only ones who pray? It's better if they leave the choice of closing during prayer times to business owners. Also in most stores, employees are not Muslim so why force them to close?"
A few took the opportunity to present their problems with some stores and restaurants that close for very long periods of time for each prayer, even though it shouldn't take longer than 15-20 minutes.
Will Saudi Arabia reverse this rule as it tries to attract more tourists?
Even though the rule has long been applied in the kingdom, many locals have demanded authorities reconsider the law. Some business owners have also been keeping their stores open despite the rule. Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia approved a new measure that gives shops the option to stay open 24 hours a day but excluded opening for prayer times.
According to Bloomberg, a government document published last year had called for an end to mandatory prayer closures, but was removed in a later version. People who have called on this rule to be scrapped have more hope than ever that the kingdom might move to reverse it given that it has been trying to attract tourists to the kingdom.
In its bid to do that, the Gulf nation launched special tourist visas and announced that several old rules - which still apply to nationals in the country - will no longer affect tourists. For example, female tourists will not need to wear abayas and unmarried foreign couples are allowed to share a hotel room. However, tourists arriving in the country will still have to adhere to specific "public decency" legislations.
Some think allowing public amenities, malls, and restaurants to open during prayer times is the next step set to be taken, but we'll have to wait and see.