A couple of years ago, Christmas in Saudi Arabia was celebrated behind closed doors, hidden within the homes of compounds but these days, a newfound change is taking place in Saudi. In an effort to make the country more open and moderate, the Kingdom began easing on Christmas celebrations all over the nation.
Today, as you walk along some of the busiest neighborhoods of Jeddah, you’ll hear Christmas songs wafting out of bakeries and stores that are adorned with ornaments and decorations while at Riyadh, santa hats, baubles, tinsel and Christmas lights can be found lined up at some of its biggest shopping centers including Kingdom Mall. Large snowmen and Christmas trees dotted Jeddah and Riyadh’s malls and markets while Santa Claus himself made an appearance at Khobar.
The festive spirit went beyond stores and shops and even made its way into advertisements as several AD agencies began releasing commercials depicting Christmas-laced themes and cozy winter scenes. All these changes would not have been imaginable a couple of years back.
What Was It Like Before
A few decades ago, the lights, the decorations and the festive spirit were unlikely to be found anywhere in the country. It was considered taboo and illegal to publicly practice any religion other than Islam, making it very difficult for non-Muslims to buy decorations and gifts to commemorate the occasion. That is not to say that these non-Islamic traditions were not celebrated, they were practiced and enjoyed but in a more low-key fashion and at times, in secret.
Back in the 70s, there were many compounds that housed foreign employees of prominent oil companies including Aramco. These residential gated communities were unlike the rest of Saudi Arabia, as they exuded a western style of life with Victorian-style houses with tiled roofs. Within their walls was a completely different life, especially during Christmas time.
Back at that time, in one of these compounds, they were able to house a massive Christmas pageant at their local softball field where families gathered together and watched a special play depicting the story of Christmas. Houses that lined the streets of these gated communities were decorated with wreaths, reindeers, and snowmen just as how it’s done abroad.
If we take a step back and look outside the walls of these compounds, Christmas becomes practically non-existent and that is why the current change taking place today is one for the history books and marks an unprecedented transformation for the Kingdom.
Why The Transformation?
The slow, gradual ease towards being more open to celebrating Christmas came after Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman vowed to lead a “moderate and liberated” Kingdom. For the past six years, the country has been pushing to achieve its Vision 2030 by moving beyond being an oil economy and instead shifting its gaze towards tourism. The Kingdom wants to become the ultimate travel destination across the region and to do so, it continues to transform its culture into one of tolerance and openness.
Beyond the Christmas celebrations, in the past year, one of the most eye-catching symbols of the Kingdom’s transformation is its recent hosting of the region’s biggest rave, Soundstorm. Electronic music, strobe lights and hundreds of people gathered together in a massive music festival, one that would not have existed in Saudi a couple of years back.
According to one close to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, “there was a recognition that things needed to change, our people want to live global lives; for too long a narrow identity was imposed on them and have nothing to fear from other customs.” The ongoing change is big and continues to grow. The question is, with all that has already changed, what’s next for Saudi Arabia?