Saudi Arabia celebrates step change during Christmas festival

Saudi Arabia wishes you a Merry Christmas! The rulers of the conservative sultanate traditionally did not accept official celebrations to mark the most important day in the Christian calendar.

But this year, residents of the capital Riyadh can enjoy seasonal displays in shopping malls and can buy Christmas trees, while an official Saudi newspaper for the first time in history publishes special festival editions.

“Saudis feel more Christmas spirit than ever,” reads the front page of the official Arabic News in English, advising readers on the best place to secure a turkey for Christmas dinner . “Better late than never,” editor Faisal Abbas wrote in a column.

This is not the first time Christmas supplies have been sold in Saudi Arabia; Restrictions on celebrations have been gradually relaxed over the course of a few years. But 2022 marks a step change for a country where most Christians are foreigners. Shoppers at a shopping mall in Riyadh were treated to festive lights, a Christmas tree and a toy polar bear holding a cordless cello.

New Christmas cheer comes as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s daily ruler, pushes for a series of important reforms. These include reforming the economy to make it less dependent on oil and easing religious restrictions on living that until a few years ago meant women could not drive.

Offering well wishes to those celebrating non-Muslim religious holidays remains a controversial topic for Saudi hardliners. This year, however, Mohammed Al-Issa, a senior Muslim cleric, told a television audience that “there is nothing in the bible that forbids congratulation”.

The change of tone has been welcomed by some Saudis, including those who have studied abroad. A Saudi expert said that some of his friends enjoyed Christmas very much.

“Young couples, Western-educated Saudis with kids,” he said of people he knows who marked the event. He added: “It’s usually for the kids, the presents and the celebratory atmosphere.

He continued, the conservatism of previous times is dwindling, while requesting anonymity so he can speak frankly. “They did [in previous years] closed flower shops for Valentine’s Day, now they allow people to celebrate Christmas. It’s a step forward for liberalism.”

The move by Arab News seems aimed at showing that Saudi Arabia is becoming a more tolerant country. The kingdom is trying to attract Western talent and businesses in the face of increasing competition from the United Arab Emirates, which offers freedom of religion for most faiths and ways of life. live more freely.

Prince Mohammed has won support for his reforms from many young Saudis, but the kingdom has been heavily criticized by Western governments and advocacy groups for its continued human rights abuses.

Saudi Arabia sentenced dozens of prisoners to death this year, while a doctoral student and mother of two were jailed for nearly 40 years for writing critical tweets.

Supporters of Crown Prince Mohammed insist he must take a firm stance if reforms are to be successful, although some of his critics also want social reform.

His actions have angered conservatives in the country identified as the custodian of Islam’s holiest sites. Although there are no precise polls on the subject, the Halloween performance in Riyadh in October sparked a wave of criticism on social media from conservatives in Saudi Arabia and across the region. .

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