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Expat life: Weekend woes

One special aspect of expat life in Saudi Arabia that has unexpectedly profound effect on your life is its weekend. It is not where you'd expect to find it, from Saturday to Sunday.

We all know that while some things in our life and environment are constant and some change depending on country, geography, or time of the year. It is changes in those unchanging things that you have grown up with that have the most subtle and profound effect on your daily life.

The effect is bit like going to Great Britain for the first time after a lifetime of driving your car on the right side of the road in continental Europe: Unless you have thought it through beforehand, you'll drive to the first junction, try to turn right and your mind will draw a complete blank trying to figure out what you'll have to do to get to the correct lane. You did not expect such a small difference to have such a big impact.

For decades, the Saudi Arabian weekend was from Thursday to Friday. The workweek used to begin on Saturday when rest of the world started their weekend. For expats in Saudi Arabia, this meant that the first couple of days of the workweek ware blissfully devoid of emails from abroad. The other side of that coin is that if you not only communicated with the outside world, but depended on it, you ended up working continuously without hardly any break at all.

The shift to the Saudi weekend did not go smoothly. It is almost impossible to stop using phrases you've been using all your life. It took years of practice not to be confused when your friend started talking about organizing a BBQ on Saturday afternoon, when he actually meant Thursday. Similarly, your colleague would try to catch up with something during the weekend and suggest that you'll continue discussing it on Monday -- and you are supposed to automatically know she meant Saturday, the first day of the workweek. And the day in the middle of the workweek is called ... naturally Monday. We've had so many good laughs over these muddled up exchanges.

Once the hapless expat had got used to all that, the rug was again swept from under his feet: On June 25 in 2013, a royal decree ordered the country to follow the suit of the other Arab Gulf countries and move to Friday-Saturday weekend. The decree came without warning and was effective immediately. A mad scramble ensued to figure out how everything works and fix calendars. The ensuing weekend was three days long to catch up.

The good news about the change was that Saudi Arabia is now out of sync with most of the world by only one day, and aligned with most other Arab countries in the region that have been following this custom for years. Now, the only two countries in the world left using the Thursday-Friday weekend are Afganistan and Yemen. They definitely form a club no-one else wants to be part of.

At a more personal level, this meant that we were doubly confused. The weekend now has its "Sunday" first and it is followed by the less holy "Saturday". So, your "Saturday" that used to be Thursday is again Saturday. If you have waited for the whole week to go for uninterrupted late night shopping (after the last prayed call of the day that closes all the shops for awhile), you better do it all on Thursday, because staying up late on Saturday is not going to help you getting up early to work on Sunday morning.

If life in Saudi Arabia is not confusing enough, you could always try working in the sultanate of Brunei. It is unique place on Earth in having a non-contiguous weekend consisting of Friday and Sunday with a workday Saturday in-between.