Al Roth at Market Design, “Reserving spaces in crowded places,” notes that authorities are cracking down on the illegal practice of reserving prayer spaces and renting them out to worshipers. He quotes from the Saudi Gazette:
“It is forbidden to reserve places in the mosques, unless the person has left for urgent reasons and intends to return soon, as otherwise it is tantamount to taking something by force,” Al-Fawzan told Okaz newspaper on Thursday. “It is also forbidden to rent a reserved place, and the authorities should put a stop to this vice (munkar).”
Note that in a market for prayer spaces, high-income and low-income persons can benefit. The low-income person (or more specifically, a person facing low opportunity costs) can earn money by holding a desired prayer spot and trading it to a high-income person just before prayer times. The banned practice would seem to create net economic benefits – price-based rationing tends to be efficiency enhancing – but this observation neglects any external spiritual or economic benefits that might accrue from high-income persons spending more time waiting in mosques.
Banning the practice seems to benefit the middle at the expense of the extremes, the middle being those people too busy to arrive too early, but too poor (or too pious?) to pay for a good spot. Henceforth, to signal piety or just get an otherwise desirable location, worshipers will have to show up early.
It would be interesting to know whether political connections (governmental or clerical) can obtain a desirable prayer spot without waiting. Can the right connections and a little influence buy what money cannot under the rules?
(Notice the similarity to rock concerts: when concert tickets are in excess demand and scalpers are prohibited, fans have to show up early. In the case of rock concerts in public stadiums, at least, a good political connection and a little influence usually secures a good seat.)