Saudi Arabia continues to implement a law that forces public amenities and shopping centers to close during Muslim prayer times, but some businesses seem to be defying this rule.
According to recent news reports, several outlets in Riyadh are no longer abiding by the legislation that states malls, restaurants, cafés, gas stations, and even hospitals must close during adhan (Islamic call to prayer) and throughout prayer time.
Last month, the kingdom's officials decreed that businesses can have the option to stay open 24 hours a day. At the time, the news reports led some to think the country had scrapped its mandatory prayer-time shutdown rule; that wasn't the case. Authorities later clarified the law is still in place.
Despite that, a few malls in Riyadh took it upon themselves to lead with the change by remaining open day and night, including prayer times.
This month, a popular burger joint at a Riyadh mall didn't close its doors during prayer times as the restaurant's manager received a text from its Saudi owner instructing him to stay open.
"The (government) decides to allow shops, restaurants and markets to work for 24 hours and the decision includes... prayer times," the message the manager received read, according to AFP.
Restaurants, cafés, and an indoor amusement park located at Al-Nakheel, another huge mall in the capital, also remained open during prayer times. Speaking to AFP, Francis, a Saudi-based Asian coffee shop manager, explained that more places are staying open throughout the day than ever before.
"Most of the time stores here are (now) open during prayer time," he said.
Two other store managers who gave statements to AFP said the officials "appeared to be looking the other way" when it came to spotting stores open during shutdown times. However, many shops aren't yet ready to take the risk and continue to abide by the law.
Not many shop owners discuss decisions to override the rule publicly
Due to the issue's sensitivity, not many public amenity owners openly discuss their decision to stay open during prayer times. However, it looks like the way the government is testing the waters with the matter is leading many to take action on their own before an official decision overturns the currently implemented law.
The kingdom's Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice - known as the religious police - oversees the application of the legislation. Though their authority was limited after the country issued a law to regulate its responsibilities in 2016, this issue is a matter they continue to have power over.
In a series of tweets posted via their official Twitter account last year, they stressed that it is unacceptable for stores to be open during prayer time, adding that it's disrespectful to be distracted with shopping or any other monetary transaction during prayer.
Even though the rule has long been applied in the kingdom, many locals have demanded authorities reconsider the law. One Saudi lawyer, Abdul Rahman Al Lahem, voiced his opinion in an interview shared last year.
"There is no religious edict stating that shops must close at prayer times, this is a law that's only in effect because the kingdom's religious police enforce it on people," he said.
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. Saudi Gazette cited economists who believe the decision meets several needs: it enhances life during nighttime as well as accommodates people when the weather is too hot — something necessary during the summer in the Gulf nation.
The new measure also seeks to boost operations for private sector businesses, an area Saudi Arabia has been putting more effort into for the past few years. In April, the kingdom revealed its plan to create more than half a million private-sector jobs by 2030. Let's see how many current and new businesses will choose to keep their operations running 24/7 following the newly announced decision.