How Christmas is Celebrated in the Arabian Gulf
By: Leyelle Mosallam / Arab America Contributing Writer
A little more than ten years ago when my family and I were living in Saudi Arabia it was almost impossible for my mother to find a Christmas tree. Christmas trees, ornaments, and all other festive decorations were banned in Saudi Arabia. Unlike the United States and other western countries where malls and public spaces are decked out with Christmas lights, Santa Clauses, Christmas trees, and all other holiday festivities, Christmas in Saudi Arabia was awfully quiet. When my family and I moved to Saudi from the United States in 2009, continuing our Christmas traditions was a challenge, but one day my mother did the unimaginable.
She came home with a Christmas tree and how she did it was interesting, to say the least. Shops were not allowed to sell Christmas trees in Saudi Arabia, but if you tried hard enough you would be surprised to hear that there were shops that sold Christmas trees but they had to be sold privately. My mother was able to find a Christmas tree at a small arts and crafts store that hid Christmas trees in the attic! It was the smallest Christmas tree that we ever had. So small that we had to place it on top of one of our coffee tables in the living room. But, it was a tree, and we were happy that we were able to find one in time for Christmas.
Ten years later and times are now different in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi crowned prince promised a more open and modern Islam. Today, almost all shops are permitted to sell Christmas decorations, lights, ornaments, and trees. Seeing people buy their Christmas decorations to get into the holiday spirit is a sign of tolerance towards other religions and cultures in the country. In 2019, the Kingdom’s capital Riyadh opened a park called “Winter Wonderland ” which features holiday festivities such as Christmas markets, activities, and shows. From not being able to buy a Christmas tree ten years ago, to opening holiday parks, Saudi Arabia has become more accepting of other religions and holidays.
Arabian Gulf countries, which are Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Kuwait are primarily Islamic countries and so Christmas is not their official holiday; however, the native population of most of these countries doesn’t even make up half of their country’s total population. For example, the population of Qatar is 2.8 million, but Qatari nationals make up only 10% of the total population; the rest of Qatar’s population consists of expatriates who come from all over the world to work and reside in Qatar. Despite the expatriate population, Islam still remains the dominat religion in these countries. In Qatar, 67% of the population is Muslim, while 13.8% is Christian.
Not only do these Arabian Gulf countries have a high population of expatriates, but in the last two decades, tourism in the region has skyrocketed. With world record-breaking shopping malls and skyscrapers, year-long sunshine, luxury, and fine cuisine, the Arabian Gulf, especially the UAE, has become the vacation hotspot.
Christmas was never an openly celebrated holiday in the Arabian Gulf. Due to their Islamic beliefs, the Arabian Gulf is known for being a relatively conservative region and Christmas had to almost always be kept a secret. But as tourism is becoming more important for the region and with the Christian population growing, the Arabian Gulf has been more open about the celebration of Christmas in their countries.
Gulf countries are trying to put their countries on the map. Becoming more modern and open to the world has become a goal of the Arabian Gulf. Almost 20 years ago, no one knew the names of these countries, now Qatar is set to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup next year and the UAE is home to some of the biggest tourist attractions in the world. As the Arabian Gulf is becoming more open to the public eye, the country’s leaders knew that they had to start accommodating their Christian population. The Christmas break has become a popular time for visiting the Arabian Gulf as well, and many want to be able to spend time with their families for the holiday while visiting.
Check out how you can celebrate Christmas in the Arabian Gulf below!
Hotels are the most common and best place to celebrate Christmas in the Gulf. Almost every hotel lobby has a large Christmas tree sitting in the middle of the foyer, and the lobby is also decorated with lights and other common Christmas decorations to make your holiday experience feel festive. Abu Dhabi is home to the most expensive Christmas tree in the world. The Christmas tree is located at the Emirates Palace Hotel and it is worth $15 million. Hotels offer Christmas Eve and Christmas Day brunch and dinner with some of the most spectacular food.
One of my family’s favorite places to celebrate Christmas day in Qatar was enjoying brunch at the W Hotel. The W hotel restaurants, which are The Market by Jean-George and the Spice Market, host a large Christmas day brunch buffet. The restaurant is nicely decorated with Christmas decorations and Christmas music is playing in the background.
Whether you are in Qatar, the UAE, or Bahrain, during the holidays be sure to enjoy a brunch or dinner.
At the Mall of Emirates in Dubai, you can take your kids to visit Santa Clause. Just like how you can take your kids to take a picture with Santa at the mall in the US, you can do the same in Dubai. Ski Dubai at the Mall of Emirates is where you can take your kids to see Santa. The Mall of Emirates has a huge Christmas tree and is decked out with Christmas decorations. It’s more decorated than the malls in the US! You can also find the same at Dubai Mall, the biggest mall in the world.
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