n previous years during the run-up to Christmas, Alia Obaidi would go to the local market in Riyadh, summon an Indian merchant and whisper her order. A short time later, he’d return with a cardboard box from a back room and furtively collect money.
But things have changed. When Alia, a Lebanese resident of the Saudi capital, made her annual trip to source Christmas decorations this year, she no longer needed the merchant, or the subterfuge.
Christmas, it seems, is no longer taboo in conservative Saudi Arabia. Baubles, tinsel, candy sticks, Santa hats, fake snow and even trees were all openly on display not only at the local market that had secretly sourced her stash of decorations, but in Riyadh’s malls and local cafes.
“You don’t see trees with all the trimmings in public spaces,” she said. “But you can see trees on sale with decorations in boxes. The message is that it’s safe to acknowledge Christmas. So this is a big change.”
In a country with its identity rooted in being the birthplace of Islam, and where the public practice of other religions is technically illegal, commemorating the birth of Jesus has long been a contentious subject.
Now with the kingdom’s leadership determined to appear more outward-facing, and to lure foreigners to live and work there, it seems it is willing to make concessions. There has not been an official announcement, but shop owners feel safe to push the boundaries because there has been no backlash.
“Trees are in family homes, even in Saudi ones,” said Riyadh resident Fadi al-Shatri. “People are allowed to enjoy and experience the traditions of the other faiths. It’s not enthusiastic yet, but it is a change.
“It used to be that we’d all go to Knightsbridge [in London] for Christmas and take photos,” he said. “But why not bring the travel experience home? In the next few years, we’ll see trees in public squares.”
Not everyone was willing to talk about Christmas. In a society in which dissent is subject to fierce crackdowns, being able to read the cues about what’s safe to talk about and what remains taboo is a tricky business. Some merchants, on the other hand, said they did not fear the Saudi authorities, but were worried about a reaction from customers who were yet to follow their rulers’ lead and embrace the rituals of other faiths.
“This remains an ultra-conservative place, even in Riyadh,” said the owner of a leading home supply chain. “A few Santa hats should be OK, but I don’t think everyone is ready for all the trappings.”
Faced with persistent criticism that social changes and newfound tolerance are all part of a reputation-laundering attempt, Saudi officials are quick to bristle. “There was a recognition that things needed to change,” said one close to the court of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
“And those necessary changes have been put in place. Our people want to live global lives. For too long a narrow identity was imposed on them. We have nothing to fear from other customs.”