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Volume 20, Number 2March/April 1969

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Dinner At When?

Or how a switch in time saved…ah…seven.

Written by Elias Antar

It was certainly time for a change.

For many years Saudi Arabia had seven different systems of keeping time. Then, about a year ago, the kingdom decided it was time to choose a single system and what is expected to be a long—and time-consuming—transition period began. In the meantime old timers from Jiddah to Dhahran began to rehash all the old time-worn stories about the problems that the kingdom's whimsical time keeping systems used to cause.

The basis of all time keeping in Saudi Arabia used to be Arabic time, the traditional method of telling the hour. Geared to the sun, it was very simple: every day at sunset you simply adjusted your watch to 12 o'clock—12 midnight, that is. If everybody had done it, there would have been no problem.

But then, unfortunately, some nameless foreigner introduced western sun time. This, in its way, was also simple. Every day at sunset, you set your watch to read 6 o'clock instead of 12 o'clock. Western sun time was probably devised so members of the foreign community could keep some sort of relationship with the time zones of their home countries although local wits say it was because the British Embassy couldn't bear the thought of serving afternoon tea at 11 o'clock.

Jiddah, on the Red Sea, is three hours ahead of Greenwich mean time, the standard time agreed to by most nations of the day at an international conference held in Washington in 1884. By design, western sun time was approximately equivalent to GMT plus three. Unfortunately, no day is exactly the same length as the one before so that the GMT plus three system and the western sun time system gradually drew apart as the seasons progressed. At the two extremes—the summer and winter solstices—the two systems were considerably different.

Just how complicated this could be was illustrated a couple of years back when an English lady of long residence in Jiddah sat down to write three invitations to a summer dinner party. One going to a Saudi Arab merchant, began "My husband and I would like you to join us for dinner at 12:30." Another, going to an airline pilot, read "... for dinner at 8:00." The third, to an American businessman, said "... dinner at 6:30." Yet, just after sunset on the appointed evening all three guests, each with a wristwatch showing a different hour, arrived within minutes of each other, dined well and later spent a leisurely evening chatting beside a lighted swimming pool—thanks to the cleverness of a hostess who knew that being on time depended very much on whose watch you were watching.

And had the dinner party been held in December, (when darkness falls about three hours earlier) the hostess would have had to invite the merchant for 3:30 Arabic time, the pilot for 8:00 GMT plus three and the businessman for 9:30 western sun time. Of the three invitations, only the hour on the pilot's remained constant throughout the year. The others fluctuated with the length of the day and the "exact" time of sunset with regard to the Greenwich observatory's standard. Only at the two equinoxes (March 21 and September 23) when day and night are equal and the sun rises and sets at approximately 6:00 o'clock (adjusted GMT) would western sun time have coincided with it. Only then would dinner at 8:00 GMT plus three (two hours after sundown) have also been dinner at 8:00 western sun time.

To be sure that things got really confused, the American Military Aid Advisory Group (MAAG) also introduced "Zulu time". Zulu time—which had nothing to do with Zulus—was nothing but basic GMT, but MAAG wanted to use it, so they used it.

Arabic time probably has its roots in the common and most logical system of timekeeping used most places in the world until about AD 1600. In those days, daytime was divided into 12 equal parts, and nightime also into 12 equal parts. Depending on the season, hours used in the daytime were either longer or shorter than hours used during the night. The sundials and astrolabes used as timekeepers were calibrated to divide into 12 regardless of the seasons. Thus, the same sundial could divide both a long summer daylight period and a short winter day equally into 12. The "day" was made up of 24 hours and began at sunset. Twelve hours of darkness preceded 12 hours of daylight, although the hours in the daytime were not the same length as the nighttime hours. This system of beginning the new

This system of beginning the new "day" at sunset remained in use on the isolated Arabian Peninsula when it became the practice in Europe to commence the 24-hour period not at dusk, as had theretofore been the custom, but in the middle of the nighttime part—and to end it in the middle of the following nighttime part. Thus, roughly speaking, six hours of darkness were followed by 12 hours of daylight and then six more hours of darkness to make the complete 24-hour period.

No one is sure why the Saudis continued to set the clock to 12 at sunset, but one Arab authority said when the first clocks were introduced people were told the day began at the hour 12. Thus, since the Saudi "day" began at sunset, they set the watches to 12 at sunset.

As an outgrowth of retaining the original system, the term "Monday night" in Arabia generally meant the period of darkness from sunset Sunday to sunrise on Monday morning. Hence an unwary Westerner who made an appointment for "Monday night" (disregarding, for the moment, the "exact" hour) with a Saudi host could have arrived 24 hours late.

About the same time in the early 17th century it also became the convention in Europe to divide the 24-hour period into 24 equal hours, so that every hour took up a length of time which was exactly 1/24th of a day. Hence a reliable, portable timepiece could be constructed fairly simply, calibrated so that each hour was the same length of time and so that the hour hand made exactly two turns every 24-hour day.

Since Arabic time also used the principal of 24 equal hours, (except the last hour which varied) "portable timepieces" in the form of the wristwatch presented no problem, so long as everybody follows the system exactly. Well, almost no problem. Behind mountains the sun seems to set as much as an hour before it sinks behind the horizon at sea level. Hence the watch of a man living just a few miles inland in mountainous Taif could have been as much as two hours ahead of his cousin in Jiddah. One element of stability was Saudair, the national airline, which used GMT plus three all over the country. But even Saudair made one exception. In Dhah-ran it used GMT plus four. And in the summer in the Eastern Province, there was still another factor to consider: at its Dhahran headquarters, the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco) used to switch to daylight saving time to allow workers to get a head start on the day's heat. The Trans-Arabian Pipe Line Company (Tapline) which transports Saudi oil to a Mediterranean terminal in Lebanon, used the same system as Aramco—but only for its pump stations in eastern Saudi Arabia. Thus as you flew over the line heading west toward Lebanon, at a given point you suddenly become an hour younger, or even two, if it were summer.

To lessen the confusion, clever watchmakers years ago began to market a curious-looking watch in the bazaars of Jiddah and Riyadh. It had two dials and four hands, so you could set one half to Arabic time and join the crowd, and set the other dial to whatever time system you prefer. For the fast moving type with plenty of appointments it was invaluable, but considering the whole system of sunsets, seasons, intervening mountain ranges, daylight saving time and happy-go-lucky clocks, it wasn't surprising that westerners, even residents, still got confused. A man named Higgins, so the story goes, used to run a local power station. One day, the whole thing became too much for Higgins and he assembled his staff and laid down the law. "I've had enough of this," he shrieked. "It is now 12 o'clock Higgins Time, and from now on this station is going to run on Higgins Time." And so, until last year, it did.

Elias Antar, Egyptian-born correspondent for the Associated Press in Beirut, is a frequent contributor to Aramco World Magazine.

This article appeared on pages 2-3 of the March/April 1969 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1969 images.