The UAE’s relationship with public holidays can be said to be in the development stage. We can’t quite seem to establish a long-term understanding. For instance, how many other countries outside the Gulf do you know that adjusted their weekends recently, or in which the public and private sectors have different days off?
The truth is, we all enjoy our days off but sometimes there really can be too much of a good thing, and this is one of them. The National reported in August that, according to Ministry of Education estimates, there are 155 instructional days in a typical state school year, which is well below the international average. Compare this with Singapore, which has 200 days, and the US and Australia, which have 190 days each.
We give young schoolchildren so many days off in winter that we end up having to extend the spring term all the way to July, although the heat can be unbearable for them even in June. Many expatriates, who make up at least 80 per cent of the population, would rather have their children study more in winter so that they can travel back to their home countries in the summer.
The UAE is still an emerging nation; wasting time with excessive holidays is not in our best interests. Of course, taking time off from work and school is an essential part of life that no one is asking us to forgo, but it has become clear that excessive holidays have become disruptive to building this nation. Here are the official holidays that we have: Gregorian New Year’s Day, Birth of the Prophet, Ascension of the Prophet, Feast of the Sacrifice, National Day, Islamic New Year, Ashoura, End of Ramadan and the Festival of Fast-Breaking. Out of the nine holidays mentioned, eight are religious and only one is patriotic.
I suggest that we do away with some of the non-core holidays and revert to having a Sheikh Zayed Accession to the Throne day on August 6, to celebrate and honour the founder of this nation and the man whom we all consider to be a father. After all, my national identity is under threat and I would appreciate a reinforcement that brought me closer to my fellow citizens, from Dibba to Liwa; and what better way to honour Sheikh Zayed than a day dedicated to him?
Additionally, our problem isn’t just having too many holidays, it’s that so many people take days off at each end if a holiday falls in the middle of the week. In Kuwait, weekday holidays are pushed back to the following Thursday. In the UAE, if there is a holiday on a Monday you will find that people take Sunday off as well, which is a working day in all the Gulf states.
Also, for those who are unaware, Friday, although a “holy day”, is not an officially designated holiday in the Islamic faith; in fact, Muslims can work on Fridays so long as they have two hours to pray in the mosque at noon. The weekend here could even be Tuesday and Wednesday and it wouldn’t make any difference from an Islamic point of view, though it might be inconvenient.
I also wonder why we celebrate New Year’s Day, a western civilisation holiday, when most of our population is eastern. Should we have a Diwali or Onam holiday? I won’t answer the question. I’m merely posing it. But there is a good argument either way.
Also, because our holidays, as in the rest of the Gulf, are based on the lunar calendar, no one really knows how the system works. As a result, Libya, the UAE and Oman all celebrated the first day of Eid on consecutive days last month. As much as I respect and appreciate the efforts of the religious councils in all the Islamic countries, science has advanced to a stage where we should be able to know in advance the movement of the earth and the moon. The UAE can set a standard in the Islamic world by relying more on the Hubble space telescope and science than on mere human eyes in determining the Islamic calendar and holidays.
The UAE is no doubt an ambitious nation that has been competing not just regionally but internationally, and we can’t afford (literally at the moment) to continue with unnecessary days off as well as uncertainties.
This is what I propose: the UAE must enter the 21st century and rely on science, not the naked eye, and determine the complete calendar for the following year’s holidays in advance. We must also unify the private and public sector holidays. Most importantly, I propose that the UAE re-establish a Sheikh Zayed Day, by eliminating some of the other holidays, to honour the man who founded, built and secured this nation.
*This article first appeared in The National on Sunday 18th October 2009