Arabian Business, Thursday, May 21, 2020 | Ramadan 28, 1441
Saudis wonder if virus will end another custom in the kingdom
As the call to noon prayer sounded at a shopping mall in Riyadh, a woman was
having her temperature checked as she walked into a boutique. Another was
sniffing the perfume that a salesman had just sprayed on her wrist. A man pushed
his trolley into a supermarket.
The monotone of the muezzin beckoning Muslims to worship five times a day is
usually accompanied by a rush to close stores. But in the time of coronavirus
and government curfews, another hallmark of Saudi life appears to have been
dispensed with. Some locals now hope the change will become part of the massive
social overhaul they’ve experienced since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
became their de facto leader in 2017.
Before the pandemic, most shops, pharmacies and gas stations in the kingdom
halted for at least 30 minutes for each prayer session, the only country that
enforced such closures. Until a few years ago, the religious police checked to
make sure everyone complied.
With Saudis free to move only from 9am to 5pm, many businesses have decided to
remain open during prayer time to make the most of the hours. Those with only
one employee close briefly to allow that person to pray.
“It makes business sense,” Iman Abdullah, 40, who manages a cosmetics store,
said a couple of minutes before noon prayers on a quiet day this week during
Ramadan. “So far, no one has objected to us remaining open. People want to
finish their business before curfew.”
She and a colleague take turns praying in a back room. Abdullah said she hoped
the situation would remain the same after the Covid-19 crisis is over.
The government has ended a ban on driving for women, allowed music and
entertainment and lifted restrictions on both sexes mingling in public.
There was no decree—but a lot of debate—on ending closures at prayer time,
one of the five main pillars of Islam.
Faisal Khaled, 30, who was shopping for a new pen for his office job, said
praying should be an individual choice and the decision by companies to
remain open should continue after the pandemic. “Now that women drive, why
should they wait at gas stations during prayer time?”
At a nearby furniture store, Abdullah al-Dosari felt different. He wants the
stores to close so everyone who works at the mall can perform group prayers.
The government has closed mosques to prevent infections. “I still feel
heartbroken every time I hear the call to prayer,” said the 27-year-old
salesman. “I pray alone, but it’s not the same.”
Starting about a year ago, a few shops experimented with remaining open and
some supermarkets closed all shutters except one, allowing shoppers to go in
as cashiers went off to pray.
Until their powers were checked four years ago, the religious police could
detain shopkeepers who were only a few minutes late closing. Before the
pandemic, officers were able to dispense advice on the importance of closing
for prayers. Now, they’re not sure if they can even do that. One agent
sitting with a colleague in a car outside a Riyadh mall said they don’t know
what the coronavirus rules are.
Another shopper at the mall said prayer time closures may eventually become
a thing of the past, though the kingdom will remain anchored by its
adherence to Islam.
“Those who want to pray will find a way to do so - work or no work,” said
Mohammed, 45. “Appearances may change, but in their hearts Saudis won’t