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

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)
Expats living in Saudi Arabia choose Christmas decorations at a gift shop in the capital Riyadh. AFP
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Expats living in Saudi Arabia choose Christmas decorations at a gift shop in the capital Riyadh. AFP
Christians in Saudi Arabia observe Christmas in new season of religious tolerance
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Lidiane Ramos Faubel spending Christmas in the Netherlands. (Supplied)
Christians in Saudi Arabia observe Christmas in new season of religious tolerance
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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

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.

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‘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.

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Jeddah residents make the most of new Red Sea water sports activities

Jeddah residents make the most of new Red Sea water sports activities
Updated 29 September 2021

Jeddah residents make the most of new Red Sea water sports activities

Jeddah residents make the most of new Red Sea water sports activities
  • Saudis are flocking to the newest and coolest new water sports activities

JEDDAH: You’ve heard of flips, twists, and turns underwater, but a new extreme water sport is allowing sports enthusiasts to do the same above the surface. It’s called flyboarding and it will take you to new heights.

Saudis are flocking to the newest and coolest new water sports activities. Invented in 2012 by French watercraft rider Franky Zapata, the flyboard is a hydroflight device that uses propulsion to drive a board into the air to perform tricks and skills. With the right balance and push, the board allows users to climb out of the water and fly, and one Saudi flyboard instructor can show you how it is done.

Mussab Felemban, a certified flyboard instructor, has been performing the art of water hoverboarding wherever he can find a body of water deep enough to hold the board and big enough to fly over.

“Flyboarding is a new sport in the Kingdom; it’s very popular among people whether they want to try it or just want to watch the performance,” Felemban told Arab News.

“Anyone can practice the sport with the presence of an instructor and of course safety equipment such as a helmet and a life jacket. It is one of the funnest and toughest water activities,” he added.

Felemban found his passion for watersports in 2009 through riding jet skis. He later discovered flyboarding in 2017, fell in love with it, and took courses in Hurghada and Dubai, to become an official flyboard instructor certified in the US.

“I was discovered 2 months ago by Jeddah’s waterfront operator as I posted my flyboard performances on social media, the operator contacted me and offered me the opportunity to be a part of their activities and I’ve been performing since,” he said. 

“I started flyboarding on the Jeddah waterfront two months ago, and thank God it was a great turnout. More than 300 people tried it, including women and children who wanted to try it out.”

Felemban is active on social media, especially TikTok, where he has gathered over 300,000 followers in just four months. “This is the biggest evidence of the strong demand for watersports,” he said.

Felemban stressed that flyboarding does require some agility, strength, and patience as it can take a while to find the balance while hovering over the water, but it is suitable for anyone. 

The price for half an hour of flyboarding is SR250 ($67).

“Flyboarding is considered a fun activity and you can do it for less than half an hour. No one can do flyboarding for longer than that because of the pressure on the knees. Yes, it burns calories and tightens the body, however, it does not replace the regular sport activities like going to the gym.”

Felemban has participated in events like Saudi National Day celebrations at the Jeddah waterfront and Sharqiyah, the opening of the Asir waterfront, and many more exciting occasions.

“Flyboarding is an entertainment sport activity, and the Ministry of Sports is focusing on Saudi youth to be prepared to participate in Olympics and international sports events.”

“You want to fly? We will make that happen,” he added.


Who's Who: Dr. Mansour Al-Turki, Saudi deputy minister for planning and information

Who's Who: Dr. Mansour Al-Turki, Saudi deputy minister for planning and information
Updated 2 min 10 sec ago

Who's Who: Dr. Mansour Al-Turki, Saudi deputy minister for planning and information

Who's Who: Dr. Mansour Al-Turki, Saudi deputy minister for planning and information

Dr. Mansour Al-Turki is the Saudi deputy minister for planning and information and executive director of the Ministry of Transport’s Vision 2030 realization office.

He is currently leading strategic planning and strategy execution initiatives for the transport sector, in addition to heading up the development of transport information centers and supervising the ministry’s corporate excellence and international relations.

From February to July last year, he held the position of assistant deputy minister for planning and prior to joining the Ministry of Transport had been director of capital planning at the Saudi National Project Management Organization (Mashroat), from November 2017 to February 2020.

At Mashroat, he took a leading role in the development of Saudi Arabia’s five-year project portfolio plans performed by government entities in the infrastructure sector. And as part of his work with the organization, he liaised with Saudi ministries and authorities to optimize capital expenditures which led to a directive to establish a uniform national capital planning system.

Between December 2011 and February 2020, Al-Turki worked with the facilities planning department at Saudi Aramco in various capacities and led a multinational team to develop business cases and proposals for a variety of projects.

Prior to that, he held roles with the Colorado department of transportation, the Saudi Authority for Industrial Cities and Technology Zones, and Riyadh municipality, and has also served on committees including as a board member of the National Competitiveness Center, and the Saudi Council of Engineers.

Al-Turki gained a bachelor’s degree in planning engineering from King Saud University in 2005, a dual master’s degree in civil engineering and business administration from the University of Colorado in 2008, and a Ph.D. in civil engineering and transportation systems from the same American university in 2014.

In addition, he is a US-registered professional engineer and a certified project management professional and has taken part in numerous Harvard Business School executive and leadership programs.


Saudi official receives Brunei diplomat in Jeedah

Saudi official receives Brunei diplomat in Jeedah
Updated 13 sec ago

Saudi official receives Brunei diplomat in Jeedah

Saudi official receives Brunei diplomat in Jeedah

JEDDAH: The director-general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs branch in the Makkah region, Mazen bin Hamad Al-Hamali, received the consul general of the Sultanate of Brunei in Jeddah, Mohammed Salemin, on Tuesday.

During the meeting, the consul was received and friendly conversations were exchanged. Since the establishment of diplomatic relations between Brunei and the Kingdom, both countries continue to enjoy warm and brotherly relations. These relations are based on mutual understanding, respect, and bonds of brotherhood that link the two countries.


25 new paths allocated at Makkah's Grand Mosque

25 new paths allocated at Makkah's Grand Mosque
Updated 29 September 2021

25 new paths allocated at Makkah's Grand Mosque

25 new paths allocated at Makkah's Grand Mosque
  • The presidency has also prepared new prayer areas inside the Grand Mosque

MAKKAH: The General Presidency for the Affairs of the Two Holy Mosques has allocated 25 new paths at the Grand Mosque in Makkah in order to provide comfort for visitors, while implementing precautionary measures. This comes in light of the increasing number of worshipers and Umrah performers to the Grand Mosque.
The presidency arranged social distancing stickers for the 25 new paths around the Tawaf (circumambulation) area to keep pace with the preparations for the Umrah season. It also allocated paths for people with disabilities in accordance with the precautionary measures.
The presidency has also prepared new prayer areas inside the Grand Mosque and its courtyards for Umrah performers in order to ensure their safety. The Saudi authorities aim to focus on the construction and maintenance works at the Two Holy Mosques. SPA Makkah
Earlier, the presidency announced that it has so far trained around 600 female employees of its agencies or assisting agencies.
The Women’s Development Affairs Agency, led by Al-Anoud Al-Aboud, deputy president for women’s development affairs, employs 310 of those women.
Around 200 women work for the Agency for Women’s Scientific, Intellectual and Guidance Affairs, led by Noura Al-Thuwaibi.
The rest of the trained women work at the Agency for Women’s Administrative and Service Affairs, under the leadership of Kamelia Al-Daadi, the general presidency said.


Saudi Ministry of Justice digitizes 50m title deeds 

Saudi Ministry of Justice digitizes 50m title deeds 
Updated 29 September 2021

Saudi Ministry of Justice digitizes 50m title deeds 

Saudi Ministry of Justice digitizes 50m title deeds 

RIYADH: The Saudi Ministry of Justice has digitized more than 50 million title deeds as part of the Real Estate Wealth Digitization Initiative. 
Launched as part of the ministry’s National Transformation Program 2020 initiatives, the title deed digitization project aims to enhance property services and simplify property management procedures through central digitization facilities.
The facilities operate round the clock and are the largest of their kind in the Middle East. 
The digitization process starts at the courts and notary public offices, where documents are accounted for and compiled, data is entered and audited. Later on, the documents are processed for transfer to the central digitization facilities for disinfection, restoration, photography, archiving, auditing and quality.