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Weekend realignment will not make UAE bankers’ working week any easier

4 or 5 day work week symbol. Turned the cube and changed words 'five day work week' to 'four day work week'. Beautiful orange background. Copy space. Business and 4 or 5 day work week concept.

A weekend with your colleagues or your clients — what would you prefer?

The United Arab Emirates’ switch to a shortened 4.5 day western style working week has been advertised as easing the work life balance for employees in region. For capital markets bankers, though, that may be a stretch of the imagination.

The UAE announced the change last week. From the start of 2022, it is ditching its traditional weekend on Friday and Saturday in favour of a later but slightly longer break starting on Friday afternoon and lasting through to the end of Sunday.

It is hoped that the shift will improve the country’s global competitiveness, though it comes at the cost of a reduced status for the religious country’s sacred day of worship — Friday.

The public sector weekend will now start at midday on Friday and prayers at mosques will be held after 1.15pm on that day. Schools are expected to follow suit, as are banks.

Some may find it hard to bat aside their misgivings over the impression this gives that money might hold more sway than religious belief in a country that has plentiful laws reflecting its official religion, Islam.

But many bankers — especially in the large ex-pat community — have no such qualms, and are delighted by the change. After years of being disturbed by colleagues and bosses in Europe and the US on a Friday — supposedly their weekend — they are looking forward to finally getting two full days off. What a treat.

However, GlobalCapital suspects the optimism may be short lived as the reality of the situation emerges. The UAE will be the only Gulf state to have this new working week. Capital markets bankers may not be bothered by their colleagues in London on a Sunday, but what about their clients in the region?

To a bond issuer, the advice of a good debt capital banker is indispensable. Many clients, indeed, believe they have a “special” relationship with their bankers. They see them more as friends. We have heard of some bankers even helping funding officials to move house.

Given this intimate relationship, if a client were to call a banker — or let's say a friend — for some trustworthy advice, it would be a very difficult call to turn down. Arguably much more difficult than a call from a colleague thousands of miles away, who anyway knows that it is technically the banker's day off.

The real hope for UAE bankers is that the rest of the region follows their lead, as they did in 2006 when the first day of the working week was changed from Saturday to Sunday.

In that case, the practical improvements to working life were more clear cut, though still not entirely certain. Neighbouring countries may be more reluctant to eat into Friday as a day of prayer.

If the rest of the region does not follow the UAE’s example, bankers there who need to maintain relationships locally will not be working the 4.5 day week advertised. It will more closely resemble a 6 day week, the same as they were putting in before.

But will the capital markets be more efficient? Will more get done? We're not convinced.

CEEMEA bonds are barely ever printed on Fridays anyway because the rest of the world is winding down for the weekend. Middle East bonds most certainly will not, because of the number of investors elsewhere in the Gulf who will on their weekend.

And while there may be easier to connect with people outside of the Muslim world, there was also much value in having a day of relatively quiet work on Sundays, with fewer interruptions.

Perhaps if or when the rest of the Gulf changes its working week to fall into line, there will be improvements. But until then, UAE bankers have just gone from being harassed by their boss at the weekend to being harassed by their clients.

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