Finding Festive: Holidays in the Gulf

When it comes to celebrating the Christmas and New Year holidays in Saudi Arabia, an expat has two choices:

  1. Leave
  2. Stay and do something weird

Last year we took Option 1 and went home, where we managed to get everybody in one spot for long enough to get a family picture. Out of about forty attempts, this was the best we could get:

The fam, on their best behaviorOne baby’s eyes closed, another being pointed toward the camera…but the babies were not actually the biggest challenge. After this picture, the attention span on the lower left fell off sharply.

The fam, getting pretty boredYeah, we were asking a lot of an eight-year-old on Christmas eve. Anyway, we concluded pretty quickly that as wonderful as it is to celebrate together, Christmas is not the best time to make the most of the precious minutes we have with the people we love. There are too many conflicting demands with in-laws and extended family, individual families’ wishes for the holiday, the pressures of traffic and naptimes and meal prep…you get the idea. So we left saying we had a great time, but we’d stay out of the way next Christmas. Give your full attention to the in-laws, kiddos, and we’ll visit at a better time of year. So this year, for the first time, we were on our own.

In Saudi Arabia, Christmas is right up there on the forbidden list with bacon and beer and Bibles.


My TV, at the end of a promo for a History Channel miniseries

As Saudi Arabia is quick to tell you, it’s an Islamic country, according to its own interpretation of what that means. In this case, it means that only Ramadan and the two Eid (pilgrimage) holidays are sanctioned. Saudi Arabia has also given itself a national day, but even that angers plenty of conservatives. (The issue just got reignited with the Grand Mufti’s declaration that celebrating Muhammad’s birthday is sinful.)

So, yeah. No holiday hoo-hah going on around here. No decorations in the malls, no music (not that there ever is), no trimmings, no commercials, no Santa, no gifts, no tree lots. Crafty decorations will show up at compound coffee mornings, made by expats for expats, and some seriously lurid (and expensive) fake Christmas trees at compound gift shops, but that’s it. From time to time you’ll stumble on a few ornaments in the back corners of craft and toy stores, and if you’re Western-looking and the proprietor sees you looking at them, he might sidle up to you and say, “Chreesmas tree?” Then he’ll show you some pictures and tell you to pull your car around to the back where he can slip an unmarked box into the back. It’s a cash-only transaction. Or so I hear. (For one personal account, check my friend’s description here.) My tree is rather more homespun:

My 2-D Christmas treeI made a lot of noise through the year about going to Christmas markets in Europe sometime in December, and the Beloved made a lot of noise about getting away for a beach trip, but time got away from us, and with about ten days left before Christmas found ourselves staring straight down the barrel of Option 2: Stay here and do something weird.

Well, weird but warmhearted. In spite of the strangeness of working on Christmas Eve and Christmas day, we’d planned on having dinner both nights with our friends here, our compound family, in the restaurant, where the Indian staff have decorated the place to the nines and work their tails off seven days a week, every day of the year, know each of our preferences, and act genuinely delighted to see us every time we step through the door. They had special menus planned. We’d miss our real families and traditions, but the friends you make in expat life are keepers. Short of being home with family, what could be better than that?

But with a little over a week to go, the Beloved’s Saudi client said, “Aren’t you taking Christmas off?” It was all the encouragement we needed. So we grabbed a couple of days of vacation and chose a hybrid: Leave AND do something weird. Dubai for Christmas!

Saudi Arabia is the only Gulf country with a prohibition on Christmas. While the others maintain that they’re Islamic countries, foreigners are free to follow whatever traditions they like and commercial enterprises are only too happy to accommodate. Christmas is on parade everywhere.

Santa in Dubai

Santa in Dubai

Christmas in Dubai

Christmas at Le Royal Meridien, Jumeriah Beach

Christmas shopping in Dubai Mall

Christmas shopping in Dubai Mall

Hotel grounds at Le Meridien, Jumeriah Beach, Dubai

Lights in the palm trees, Le Royal Meridien, Jumeriah Beach, Dubai

Christmas at Mall of the Emirates, Dubai

Christmas at Mall of the Emirates, Dubai

We started in the famous, enormous Dubai mall on Christmas eve with a singular objective:

Texas Roadhouse, Dubai MallThat’s right. If we couldn’t go home, we could at least touch home. If you’re not familiar, Texas Roadhouse is an American chain steakhouse that (unlike Outback) is ALWAYS really, really, really good. I can’t say that I’ve had a steak at four times the price that beats the quality of their meat. (Unpaid plug.) It’s unapologetically Southwest kitch, and, as I looked at a colossal print of an Native American chief with full feathered headdress and an armadillo shell, with the aggressively friendly Filipino staff criss-crossing in front of it (“Hi there! How was your last visit?”), I caught myself wondering, What does an Emirati walking out of here expect about America? (Spoiler alert: Texas doesn’t actually look like that.)

We took in a little Christmas spirit around the mall:

Selfie at the Christmas village, Dubai MallSanta's elves on parade, Dubai MallSome window shopping:

Diamonds at Dubai MallChecked in with the aquarium and the much-photographed waterfall:

Dubai Mall waterfall Dubai Mall waterfallYeah, usually from that angle. And usually with some guy making a squeamish face at the edge of the shot.

We also found my new favorite Dubai destination, Eataly:

Eataly, Dubai MallEataly, Dubai Mall Eataly, Dubai Mall Eataly, Dubai MallThere’s a bakery inside, a gelateria, a pizzeria, a charcuterie, cheese shop, olives, vinegars, olive oils, pantry goods, tools…I froze for a minute or so in front of the flours: for pizza, for pasta, for bread, for sweets. Worth the trip, right there. Oh, the tragedy that I had but one stomach to enjoy my evening with.

The mall, dinner, some North Pole kitch…we hadn’t strayed that far from the North American Christmas norm by much. Christmas day, however, it all went out the window.

Christmas on Jumeriah Beach, DubaiLying on the beach, swimming in the Arabian gulf (cold, by the way, at this time of year), and watching the camel rides go back and forth. If you’re having an unusual Christmas, might as well go all the way, right?

But if you insist on something more traditional:

Ski Dubai, Mall of the EmiratesThat’s right. An indoor winter wonderland, year round, at Emirates Mall. It is certainly surreal to be walking around in a desert mall, look through glass, and see people stomping around in snow boots and parkas. More traditional ski resorts could take a lesson from the indoor venue on efficient use of space. Skiing, snowboarding, ski school, ziplines, hamster balls (or whatever they’re called), an alpine village, Christmas tree, Frozen-themed children’s activities, and even a place for a tiniest snowbugs to get towed around on innertubes. (Sorry about the annoying reflections in the photos. We were on the outside of the glass, looking in, and enjoying a nice Thai dinner.)

Ski Dubai, Mall of the EmiratesSki Dubai, Mall of the EmiratesSki Dubai, Mall of the EmiratesMost puzzling are the number of people we saw riding the ski lift DOWN.

Ski Dubai, Mall of the EmiratesThat hill too daunting for you?

Add some fine dining (no shortage in Dubai), some more time on the beach, and Arabian Christmas 2014 was done.

New Year’s Eve and Day are another matter, however. I saw a post in a Facebook group asking where the good places were to see New Year’s Eve fireworks. The responses mostly ran along this theme:

Yeah. No, there are no New Year’s celebrations here. We went to a friend’s house for pizza on New Year’s Eve, and came home about 10:00 because that day and the next were work days. Watched some college football a day late via Slingbox. Then, itching for a little out-of-control, uninhibited fun with a crazy crowd, headed into the escarpments south of Riyadh over the weekend to hang out with these guys:

Desert Baboons, Riyadh, Saudi ArabiaWho are quick to remind a person why inhibitions and a healthy veneer of civilization are good things.

Desert Baboons, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia Desert Baboons, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia Desert Baboons, Riyadh, Saudi ArabiaYes, there’s weird and then there’s weird. This is a good time of year to remind ourselves that despite all our differences and accusations of weirdness directed toward each other, we humans have come a long way. Let’s keep it up. Not chase each other away from the things we think are ours. Share a little. Wipe our backsides. Brush our teeth. And make a sincere effort to understand those who are bigger, smaller, furrier, more or less religious, darker, lighter, or weirder than we are. Every little bit counts.

2 thoughts on “Finding Festive: Holidays in the Gulf

  1. Cynthia Monk says:

    Hi Margo, I was referred to your blog by one of your embassy friends. We are coming out there this summer so I’m trying to connect with other friends, and learn as much as I can about life there, so I love reading your posts, and I look forward to meeting you. Happy New Year!


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