Christians in Saudi Arabia observe Christmas in new season of religious tolerance

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English instructor Lydia Diggs (below) can celebrate Christmas with her family over her phone, and she enjoys creating a special festive environment. (Supplied)
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Expats living in Saudi Arabia choose Christmas decorations at a gift shop in the capital Riyadh. AFP
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Lidiane Ramos Faubel spending Christmas in the Netherlands. (Supplied)
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Fina Concepcion and her son at a shopping mall in the Philippines during Christmas last year. (Supplied)
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Updated 25 December 2020

Christians in Saudi Arabia observe Christmas in new season of religious tolerance

  • Greater tolerance towards other faiths means a more festive mood despite the damper put by the pandemic on the holiday spirit
  • Sale of Christmas decorations in a Riyadh shop perfectly captures the zeitgeist of a new era in the Kingdom

RIYADH: Christmas in Saudi Arabia this year feels different in a very remarkable way. Christmas trees and decorations are for sale at a gift shop in Riyadh. Scenes of people buying Santa Claus outfits, tinsel, baubles and other ornaments from the shop in the Saudi capital are an unmistakable sign of greater tolerance towards other religions and faiths.

In recent years, festive sales have gradually been introduced into Riyadh, reflecting the process of social liberalization that began with a decree issued in 2016 by the Cabinet, restricting the ability of the Saudi Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice to pursue and arrest violators.

In February, shops sold red roses and teddy bears in celebration of Valentine’s Day, a development that too was unthinkable just two years ago. Now, the sale of Christmas decorations in Riyadh perfectly captures the zeitgeist of a new era in the Kingdom.

To be sure, for Christian households the world over, Christmas this year is like no other. The combination of pandemic-linked curbs on family gatherings and financial hardships brought on by lockdown measures has taken some of the shine off the Dec. 25 holiday.


For the Christian expat community of Saudi Arabia, where various restrictions related to COVID-19 remain in effect, the day will probably be more a time for reflection than rejoicing.

The situation in the Gulf region is no different from the rest of the world. The festive traditions of big family get-togethers, religious gatherings, parties with friends and colleagues, and alpine-themed Christmas markets have this year been forced online or canceled altogether as governments restrict travel, impose limits on households mixing and scrub the social calendar.

Saudi Arabia imposed travel restrictions in March to help contain the coronavirus outbreak. Although the Kingdom partially lifted flight bans on Sept. 15, all international flights were again suspended on Dec. 20 for one week following reports of a new virus strain emerging in Europe.

“As a Christian based in Saudi Arabia, I’m celebrating Christmas in solitude away from the family,” Jeruel Trinidad, an American expat working in Riyadh, told Arab News.

“Usually, I go home at this time of year to reunite with my loved ones, but this year, for obvious reasons, I’m stuck where I am. I’ll survive Christmas by treating myself in a cozy restaurant that serves my favorite dishes, engage in a lot of video calls with relatives back home, meet up with friends in the same predicament as me, and most importantly, continue working to keep myself busy so I can forget the nostalgia. Once all this is over, I’ll go home when I can.”

Many Christian families had hoped that the pandemic would be under control by December, and had dreamed of festive reunions following months of separation and isolation. But the World Health Organization has warned of “a significant risk of increased COVID-19 transmission during the upcoming holiday season,” with experts advising against unnecessary travel and indoor religious gatherings.

The situation is unlikely to change significantly by Jan. 7 in the new year, when Coptic Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ following the Coptic calendar.

Although disappointed, many Christian expats in Saudi Arabia are determined to mark the occasion, albeit responsibly. Berney James, an Indian national based in Riyadh, admits things will not be the same, but says he will not allow the pandemic to dampen his festive spirit.

Christmas decorations at a mall in Jeddah. (Supplied)

“There is no place like home to celebrate Christmas,” James told Arab News. “There’s a lot of expectation, but also disappointment going around this time due to travel restrictions amid the pandemic. Nevertheless, we’re decorating our homes and organizing meals with friends.”

Christian expats in the Kingdom, as elsewhere during this pandemic year, are trying to make the best of a bad situation and focusing on the positives.

Fina Concepcion, an occupational therapist at Prince Sultan Military Medical City in Riyadh, usually returns home to the Philippines to celebrate with her extended family.

This year, she has tried to create as magical a Christmas as possible for her young son. A new gift-wrapped toy awaits under their makeshift tree for him to open on Christmas morning.

Simbang Gabi, or Night Mass, is an important nine-day religious observance performed each year in the Philippines in anticipation of Christmas.

This year, Concepcion’s family and many other Catholic Filipinos are missing out. She is hopeful the pandemic will soon be brought under control so she can book a visit home.

Fina Concepcion's children spending Christmas in Riyadh.  (Supplied)

While some expat households will try to recreate the traditions of a more familiar Christmas, others have embraced Saudi pastimes to help quash their longings for home.

Arnold Gonzales Pineda, a Filipino expat based in the Saudi city of Buraydah, told Arab News: “On Christmas Eve there will be feasting, a little bit of singing, and exchanging of gifts depending on what everyone can afford.”

Nonie Sagadal Jr., a resident of Riyadh, explained that Filipinos in Saudi Arabia normally celebrate Christmas in different ways: “Some organize parties in their accommodation or camps by organizing programs and exchanging gifts. They sing in groups during these gatherings and even dance to the music.

“Other groups, consisting of friends or co-workers, celebrate Christmas night by going out. They take a break from kitchen chores and dine out.”

Sadagal Jr. said families, on the other hand, typically enjoy themselves by spending Christmas Day in public parks or meeting up for a meal in a restaurant.

For Lidiane Ramos Faubel, a personal fitness and martial arts trainer from Brazil, spending time with friends and loved ones is more important than the season’s religious observances.

To ease the pangs of homesickness, she is grateful to have a community of Brazilian friends in Jeddah to share the holidays with.

Lidiane Ramos Faubel spending Christmas with her family. (Supplied)

Lydia Diggs, an instructor of English at Jeddah’s King Abdulaziz University and a holistic coach, said she would have loved to spend Christmas with her family, but the significance of the season is more spiritual than material for her at a personal level.

Nevertheless, she added, she appreciates the “Merry Christmas” greetings from students as they create a more welcoming environment.

This year, Don Owens, a senior manager of polymer and material sciences at SABIC’s Corporate Research and Development Center at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), is spending his first Christmas in Saudi Arabia.

Rather than traveling home to the US to spend the holidays with his extended family, he is using this time to explore Saudi Arabia’s natural wonders with a Christmas camping trip. “One of our favorite things to do in Saudi Arabia this time of year is take trips into the desert,” Owens told Arab News.

“We’ve decided to get together with some friends from here at KAUST and do a two-day camping trip in the desert. This will be our first time spending the night in the desert, so the whole family is very excited about this.”

Sarah Palmer, who works for John Hopkins Aramco Healthcare in Dhahran, told Arab News: “I’m Australian, so a sunny Saudi Christmas Day is perfect for me. We have friends here who’ve become as close as family, so on Christmas Day we’ll have an outdoor lunch by the pool while enjoying the perfect weather.”

Lydia with her family on Christmas two years ago. (Supplied)

As for family members thousands of miles away, the internet has been a godsend through the months of separation.

“There will be lots of messaging with family around the world, sharing videos of the children opening presents, photos of the food and, of course, FaceTime so the kids can see their cousins and grandparents,” Palmer said.

Christmas may seem different this year, particularly for expats spending the festive period far from home. But with the Kingdom’s increasingly open, tolerant environment, a few reminders of home in the shopping aisles and a little help from smartphone technology, it is sure to be one to remember.


‘A modern vision to life’

On a state visit to Egypt in March 2018, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman invited Pope Tawadros II, the leader of the country’s Coptic Orthodox Church, to the Kingdom. During a tour of Cairo’s St. Mark’s cathedral, the crown prince said all Coptic Christians were welcome in Saudi Arabia.

Recalling the meeting, Tawadros, in an exclusive interview later with Arab News Editor in chief Faisal J. Abbas, said: The crown prince is “an open-minded person who has a modern vision to life, and this pleases us a lot.” A delegation was to visit Saudi Arabia shortly afterwards to lead private sermons for Coptic Christians living in the Kingdom.

Tawadros also said the meetings that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Saudi officials were holding “on all levels, whether religious, political or cultural, are very beneficial to the nation and the Kingdom and contribute to human development.”

Also in March 2018, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman held a private meeting in London with Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, where they discussed the reforms underway in Saudi Arabia. "The Crown Prince made a strong commitment to promote the flourishing of those of different faith traditions, and to interfaith dialogue within the Kingdom and beyond," the archbishop's office said.

In September 2019, a delegation of evangelical Christian leaders visited Saudi Arabia and held meetings aimed at promoting interfaith harmony. The group, led by Joel Rosenberg, an American author, was received by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and stress was laid on efforts to promote coexistence and tolerance as well as to combat extremism and terrorism.



Saudi, Omani officials discuss economic zones ties

Updated 24 June 2021

Saudi, Omani officials discuss economic zones ties

JEDDAH: The secretary-general of the Economic Cities and Special Zones Authority (ECZA), Nabil Khoja, met on Tuesday in Riyadh the undersecretary of the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Investment Promotion of Oman, Asila Al-Samsamiya, to discuss special economic zones between the two nations.

They covered cooperation and integration opportunities the zones would offer, with Khoja touching on the ECZA’s role as the organizational umbrella that ensures the alignment of the special economic zones project with the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 and national strategies.

He stressed that the meeting with Al-Samsamiya comes within the framework of strengthening international cooperation via special economic zones and seeking to build strategic partnerships.

Khoja noted that the ECZA has expertise in supervising, regulating and controlling economic cities and special zones, which can be shared between the Kingdom and Oman. He added that this will contribute to achieving the goals of the two countries, and to enhance the vital role that the ECZA can play in realizing the objectives of Vision 2030.

This meeting followed an extended session between the ECZA’s team, headed by the vice secretary-general for Special Economic Zones, Wassim Khashoggi, and the deputy chairperson of the Public Authority for Special Economic Zones and Free Zones in Oman, Ahmed Al-Deeb. 

The two parties discussed providing support for Omani efforts to attract Saudi investment for special economic zones and free zones projects in the Sultanate.

They also covered the possibility of establishing a Saudi industrial zone in Oman, which the Saudi side would develop, operate and manage, and build roads to transport goods between the Saudi and Omani special economic zones.


Who’s Who: Dr. Hessah Al-Ageel, director general at the Saudi Institute of Public Administration

Updated 23 June 2021

Who’s Who: Dr. Hessah Al-Ageel, director general at the Saudi Institute of Public Administration

Dr. Hessah Al-Ageel has been the director general of the women’s branch of the Institute of Public Administration (IPA) in the Eastern Province since 2015.

As part of the IPA’s role in helping public servants, especially those with disabilities in workplaces, the branch recently delivered a three-day, text-processing training program designed for the region’s female public employees with hearing difficulties.

Al-Ageel received a bachelor’s degree in translation from King Saud University (KSU) in 2003. Seven years later, she obtained a master’s degree in applied linguistics (TESOL) from La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia. In 2016, she was granted a doctorate in global, urban and social studies from Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.

In 2005, Al-Ageel joined the IPA, where she served as a faculty staff member in the English language department at the Riyadh women’s branch for nearly 10 years before she was appointed head of the women’s branch in the Eastern Province.

Al-Ageel’s doctoral thesis focused on the behavior of Saudi women in contemporary Arabic-speaking situations. The research she presented for the degree investigated Saudi pidgin Arabic that has emerged as a result of Saudi people interacting with foreign workers, especially Asians.

In 2018, the IPA published an Arabic version of Jason W. Osborne’s “Best Practices in Logistic Regression” translated by Al-Ageel. She has also translated and reviewed a number of scientific papers in different fields, and has led consultation teams in training needs assessment, human resource and organizational structures.

She is also active in increasing awareness about corporate social responsibility and sustainable development goals.

Saudi Arabia will judge new Iran president Raisi by ‘reality on the ground’ — FM

Updated 23 June 2021

Saudi Arabia will judge new Iran president Raisi by ‘reality on the ground’ — FM

  • Prince Faisal says ‘very concerned’ about unanswered questions on Iran’s nuclear program
  • Austrian foreign minister: Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia are unacceptable

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia will judge Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi’s government by “the reality on the ground,” the Kingdom’s foreign minister said on Tuesday.
“From our perspective, foreign policy in Iran is in any case run by the supreme leader (Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) and therefore we base our interactions and our approach to Iran on the reality on the ground, and that is what we will judge the new government on, regardless of who is in charge,” Prince Faisal bin Farhan told a news conference with his Austrian counterpart during his official visit to the capital, Vienna.
He said he was “very concerned” about unanswered questions on Iran’s nuclear program, an apparent reference to the UN nuclear watchdog seeking explanations on the origin of uranium particles found at undeclared sites in Iran.

Saudi Arabia and Gulf allies continue to pressure Iran over its nuclear program, which Tehran says is entirely peaceful, and its ballistic missiles. US intelligence agencies and the International Atomic Energy Agency believe Iran had a secret, coordinated nucleaar weapons program that it halted in 2003.
Raisi, a hard-line judge who secured an expected election victory on Saturday, said on Monday he wanted to improve ties with Gulf Arab neighbors.

Biden administration officials are insisting that the election of Raisi won’t affect prospects for reviving the faltering 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran. But there are already signs that their goal of locking in a deal just got tougher, according to The Associated Press.

Optimism that a deal was imminent faded as the latest talks ended on Sunday without tangible indications of significant progress.

Raisi is likely to raise Iran’s demands for sanctions relief in return for Iranian compliance with the deal, as he himself is already subject to US human rights penalties.


This section contains relevant reference points, placed in (Opinion field)

“I don’t envy the Biden team,” said Karim Sadjapour, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who has advised multiple US administrations on Iran. “I think the administration now has a heightened sense of
urgency to revise the deal before Raisi and a new hard-line team is inaugurated.”

Meanwhile, Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg condemned the continuous Houthi attacks on civilians in Saudi Arabia, describing such assaults as “unacceptable.”

Prince Faisal said the Houthi militia has regularly rejected initiatives for a complete cease-fire, and have always resorted to escalate the situation.

Farhan said Saudi Arabia and Austria shared a “similar vision” regarding the region’s stability, while Schallenberg said his country supports developments taking place in across Saudi Arabia in several areas.

Prince Faisal met for talks with Schallenberg at the Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where the two sides discussed opportunities for joint cooperation, developing bilateral relations, and ways to develop them in various fields, especially in light of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030, the Kingdom’s foreign ministry said.
They also discussed ways to enhance joint coordination to serve the interests of the two countries, and the most prominent regional and international developments.
(With Reuters)

Saudi Arabia and Gulf allies continue to pressure Iran over its ballistic missiles and the nuclear program, which Tehran says is entirely peaceful.

US intelligence agencies and the International Atomic Energy Agency believe Iran had a secret, coordinated nuclear weapons program that it halted in 2003.

Who’s Who: Dr. Suzan Mohammed Al-Yahya, director general of Saudi Arabia’s Royal Institute of Traditional Arts

Updated 22 June 2021

Who’s Who: Dr. Suzan Mohammed Al-Yahya, director general of Saudi Arabia’s Royal Institute of Traditional Arts

Dr. Suzan Mohammed Al-Yahya has been appointed director general of Saudi Arabia’s Royal Institute of Traditional Arts.

Al-Yahya will be responsible for managing the institute, implementing its strategic directions and developing traditional arts in line with the institute’s vision.

She is one of the top academics in the field of art and design, having worked as a faculty member at Princess Nourah Bint Abdul Rahman University.

She also worked as a consultant, and was a member of advisory committees at the university and other organizations.

Al-Yahya obtained a master’s degree in art education and a Ph.D. in educational technology, as well as a Ph.D. in educational policies and leadership at the University of Northern Colorado, US.

She has authored research papers in various fields and participated in several scientific conferences.

The institute will launch its first training courses in September aimed at enriching traditional arts, training specialized national cadres, raising the level of public awareness, and preserving tangible and intangible cultural heritage.

The Royal Institute of Traditional Arts is one the initiatives of the Quality of Life Program, part of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 reform plan.

The Ministry of Culture aims to develop the local cultural sector through education and knowledge. The institute will provide advanced educational programs to prepare young Saudis to help the Kingdom develop its cultural sector along modern lines.

Who’s Who: Khalid bin Abdullah Al-Hogail, new president of International Association of Public Transport

Updated 21 June 2021

Who’s Who: Khalid bin Abdullah Al-Hogail, new president of International Association of Public Transport

Khalid bin Abdullah Al-Hogail was recently appointed president of UITP, the International Association of Public Transport, a global network that brings together all public transport modes.

The association gives 1,600 member companies access to 18,000 transport bodies in 99 countries. It is a champion of sustainable urban mobility.

Al-Hogail is the first Arab to be appointed association president and the second from a non-European country in UITP’s 135-year history. His appointment is testimony to Saudi Arabia’s increasing competency in the public transport sector.

Al-Hogail has been the CEO of the Saudi Public Transport Co. (SAPTCO) since 2006. He is also chairman of Saudi Emirates Educational Transport Co.

During his long association with SAPTCO, Al-Hogail has contributed to the development of the public transport sector and is playing a key role in helping the Kingdom achieve Vision 2030 goals related to the transport sector.

He gained a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering at King Saud University in Riyadh, and also has completed training courses in management, leadership, planning and strategy.

Al-Hogail is a member of several national and international companies and associations, such as the Arab Union for Land Transport, the Saudi Bahraini Transport Co., Saudi-French Business Council, Saudi-Indian Business Council, Saudi-Bahraini Business Council, the National Council for Tourism, and the Arab Management Association.

He has won many awards, including the distinguished member award of the Arab Land Transport Union.