Saudi Arabia is now giving freedom to sell Christmas trees

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Christmas trees and knick-knacks that are typical of the celebration of Christian holidays are open for sale in the Saudi Arabian capital, Riyadh. The reactions of people in the country were mixed to see the change. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has so far banned the public practice of any religion other than Islam and does not allow churches or places of worship except mosques. Previously, Christmas trees ordered from abroad were confiscated by customs, as were other religious paraphernalia such as Buddha statues. But this year, there’s been a bit of more festive excitement in a society whose leadership by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman enabled music, gender mixing, and regards fun as a nascent industry.

On the streets of Riyadh, no one explicitly shouts “Merry Christmas”, unlike in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. However, Prince Mohammed bin Salman wants Riyadh to rival Dubai as a magnet for ex-pats and a regional headquarters for global companies. It would picture Santa on tiptoe on the streets of the capital. Opening a conservative empire is key to attracting foreigners to Saudi Arabia.

At a popular restaurant in the center of the Saudi Arabian capital, Mariah Carey’s song is playing for diners. Diligent shoppers can find the tree in permanent open view and not hidden in the back room anymore, along with reindeer headbands, Santa hats, and typical Christmas baubles. More bakeries offer cakes in the shape of yule sticks. A furniture store also has a striking display of red wreaths and candles. Some hotels have subtle decorations in the lobby. One of them had snowflakes hanging over a glass shelf filled with panettones, bottles of non-alcoholic sparkling wine, and poinsettias. Others have gift boxes that rise from the floor in the shape of a tree. The reactions of Saudis have been mixed, reflecting the divisions over the social change in the country where Islam was born.

When several Saudis had bought Christmas trees, a shop manager said there had been several people coming in to complain about the merchandise, saying it was forbidden under Islam to keep such items. When asked if her shop sells Christmas decorations, a Saudi Arabian saleswoman said: “Alhamdulillah, we don’t.”

But that didn’t affect sales at some shops, especially a toy shop in Riyadh that sells Christmas decorations. Sales were better than in previous years and store owners and managers were less nervous about displaying these items in public. However, the owner and manager declined to be named for fear of reprisals from those in the country who have cracked down on any dissent in recent years. One manager said he was displaying a Christmas tree publicly for the first time. He used to keep it in a separate room in previous years. At the shop next door, a salesperson said he put the tree behind the shop, without opening a branch so as not to attract too much attention. A few yards away, another manager said he wasn’t too worried. The shop glittered with ornaments, ribbons, stars, and party hats. According to him, Saudis who are not happy with such a sight should be forgiven. He said they need time to get used to it.

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