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RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia has announced it is switching its official weekend to Fridays and Saturdays, bringing the kingdom's working week closer in line with other countries in a move long desired by many of the country's businesses.
Saudi Arabia, the biggest Arab economy, had been the only member of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council to have a Thursday-Friday weekend after Oman shifted to a Friday-Saturday weekend last month.
The surprise move, which will be applied from this week, was immediately welcomed by Saudi economists and businessmen as giving the private sector an extra day of alignment with international businesses.
"It will increase interface with the rest of the world, now things will move faster," said Ali al-Ajmi, a former vice president at state oil company Saudi Aramco who now runs a project management business.
Abdulrahman al-Ubaid, a former vice president at Saudi Basic Industries Corp (SABIC), the world's biggest petrochemical company, and now managing director of Saudi Development and Innovation Group, also welcomed the change.
"We expect the impact to be positive on the Saudi economy, we think our business will be easier," he said.
Saudi Arabia is considering opening its stock market to more direct foreign investment in the future. At present, stocks move considerably on shifts in global equities and commodities markets.
Although the world's top oil exporter had discussed looking at the change in its weekend in the future, few people had expected it to make the switch so soon.
However, some Saudi companies, including food producer Savola had already announced they would change their own weekend to Friday and Saturday to improve their coordination with regional partners.
The fact the change is happening in June, after schools have closed and while many Saudis are on holiday before the Ramadan fast which starts on July 9, means it will be less jarring, economists said.
"Instead of having just three working days aligned with the rest of the world, now you will have a full team for most of the working week that the rest of the world applies. One extra day does play a considerable role in increasing output," said John Sfakianakis of chief investment officer at Masic investment in Riyadh.
Traditionally Saudis had a six-day working week, taking off Fridays when Muslims are enjoined to attend mosque for communal prayers, but the government added Thursday to the official weekend.
Some religious conservatives had argued against moving to a Friday-Saturday weekend because they feared it smacked of westernisation. However, that argument did not enjoy serious support, said Saudi sociologist Khalid al-Dakhil.
"In terms of religious opposition, yes there might be some, but there's absolutely no unanimity in opposing this course among religious people," he said.
A statement on Sunday on national Saudi news agency SPA said the change, decreed by King Abdullah, will take effect as of this weekend, "for the sake of putting an end to the negative effects and the lost economic opportunities consistently associated with variation based on work days between local departments, ministries and institutions and the regional and international counterparts."
King Abdullah issued the decree following a recommendation in April by the Kingdom's Shura Council, which advises the government on new laws, to investigate changing the country's official weekend from the current Thursday and Friday.
Reporting By Mirna Sleiman and Angus McDowall; Additional reporting by Martin Dokoupil and Reem Shamseddine; Editing by William Maclean and Greg Mahlich