JEDDAH/RIYADH: Christmas shopping in Saudi Arabia is unrecognizable compared to just a few short years ago, reflecting both the growing culture of religious tolerance and the speed and scope of the social transformation underway in the Kingdom.
Nowadays, festive gifts and decorations can be found easily in many of the Kingdom’s markets and malls, with Christmas trees in the capital Riyadh, snowmen in Jeddah, and even Santa Claus putting in an appearance in Al-Khobar.
As more foreign expatriates choose to make Saudi Arabia their home, the government’s efforts to move the country toward an “open and moderate Islam” has created an atmosphere that is welcoming to other faiths and traditions.
The transformation has also allowed local retailers and e-commerce platforms to sell a broader range of products to those keen to join in with the festivities.
Wejdan Al-Khatabi, a Saudi marketing professional who works at Napco National in Jeddah, told Arab News that Christmas items are selling well this year and are in high demand in Saudi Arabia.
“I work in an environment where 70 percent of the employees are Christian,” said Al-Khatabi.
“Some of them celebrate in their home countries and some of them celebrate here. They used to complain that they could not celebrate here as there were no Christmas celebration vibes or products. However, today they can celebrate with the full winter set.”
Al-Khatabi says that she and her daughter enjoyed decorating a Christmas tree at her Christian friend’s home in Jeddah.
“We ordered the tree from Amazon and the rest of the decorations from Noon and Mumzworld and it took a week to arrive, as related items are more acceptable nowadays and are being shipped smoothly without any restrictions compared to how it used to be before.”
The growth of e-commerce has made it far easier for Christian households in the Kingdom to access gifts and decorations, and to openly share their traditions with Muslim friends and neighbors.
“We brought everything online and we enjoyed the preparation vibe,” said Al-Khatabi. “I love it. And for me, it is a sample of a cozy winter, and it is really enlightening to be surrounded by people with different perspectives.”
Alain Karam, a Lebanese expatriate living in Saudi Arabia, confirms that finding Christmas decorations in the Kingdom’s stores is much easier than it had been in previous years.
“Decorations were previously available in Saudi Arabia in specific hidden locations because it was not permitted, but they are now available in malls or nearby shops,” Karam told Arab News. “I used to go to Christmas markets in embassies where people used to buy Christmas decorations.”
These days, some cafes and restaurants in Saudi towns and cities are transformed into winter wonderlands, encrusted with decorations and imported ornaments, and offering holiday beverages in Christmas-themed cups and glasses.
At one of Riyadh’s best-known shopping centers, Kingdom Mall, several shops are now selling Christmas decorations and gifts, including the French beauty retailer L’Occitane.
“We have a variety of Christmas packages at L’Occitane, including skin care, perfumes, and small giveaway packages,” Wedad Al-Malki, a sales representative, told Arab News.
“Businesses that celebrate Christmas often place special orders with us ahead of time. There is a high demand for Christmas packages, particularly from businesses that celebrate Christmas with their employees.”
Bateel, a cafe and store that sells organic Saudi dates and luxury gifts, has launched a new collection of elegant tree- and star-shaped gift boxes containing chocolates or stuffed dates, decorated in red, green, white, and gold.
Lily’s Bakery and coffee shop in Jeddah is also offering Christmas products and a winter ambiance, with cups of rich hot chocolate decorated with gingerbread men.
Advertising agencies have also caught on to the Christmas theme, releasing new commercials filled with festive scenes and cozy winter iconography.
Neama Al-Sabea, a Jordanian based in Jeddah, told Arab News she is welcoming Christmas this year with a full winter-themed setup, including an electric chimney, snowmen, a traditional tree, and glittering ornaments.
“Special related items can be found via Instagram accounts, especially the ones based in Riyadh,” said Al-Sabea.
“This year I have a collection from seven different places including red winter candles, wooden deer, and tiny snowmen, and I also added artificial berry tree branches from Shein next to pine cones, which is one of the key winter elements.”
“One of the dearest items to my heart is the handmade wooden rocking chair, which I placed next to the chimney with a throw blanket over it.”