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The Role of Religion in Public Life

I was on a business trip in the late ‘70s to Jordan, with some of my friends who were interested in the hotel sector. On our evening return from a gala dinner, in the lobby of the hotel where we were staying, I asked my companions to consider for a moment the paradox of the prayer-times board that was hung high above the reception desk. I pointed out to them that the height of the board means that there’s a need for a high ladder and an employee who undertakes the daily task of changing the prayer times on it.  Because those with me were all from the lodging sector, they thought about the operational costs of maintaining that prayer board. But I was left reflecting on something else: the role that religion plays in our society. It’s clear that increasing the role of religion in people’s everyday lives doesn’t create better societies. Good citizenship isn’t fostered by injecting religion into everyday public life. The goal of the state is not to create a religious citizen, but rather to create an educated, capable and productive citizen that can contribute to the economy and pay taxes. Without taxes, governments cannot provide any services. Therefore, at the core of every society stands a productive economy, not a productive religion. That is why many were interested in the positive consequences of Saudi Arabia’s decision to allow shops, factories and hundreds of thousands of businesses to continue operating during prayer times. Those who wish to worship are allowed to do so – and are still protected under Saudi law – but the norm has shifted from shutting down businesses for several hours a day. Arab economies cannot afford to continue sustaining themselves by pumping millions of barrels of oil out of the ground. This solution won’t last forever. Instead, we must all prepare for the day when our economies become innovative, productive and efficient – allowing us to unlock the growth we need to sustain for generations to come. – Ahmed Al-Sarraf (translated by Asaf Zilberfarb)