RIYADH: Christmas decorations are displayed for sale at a gift shop in the Saudi capital on Dec 7, 2020. - AFP

RIYADH: Christmas trees and glittery ornaments are for sale at a Saudi gift shop, a once unthinkable sight in the cradle of Islam where all public non-Muslim worship is banned. In recent years, festive sales have gradually crept into the capital Riyadh, a sign of loosening social restrictions after Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman pledged to steer the conservative Gulf kingdom towards an "open, moderate Islam".

"I didn't ever imagine I'd see this" in Saudi Arabia, a Riyadh resident told AFP at the shop selling trees, Santa Claus outfits as well as tinsel, baubles and other ornaments. "I am surprised," said the resident, declining to be identified. Until barely three years ago, it was almost impossible to sell such items openly in Saudi Arabia, but authorities have been clipping the powers of the clerical establishment long notorious for enforcing Islamic traditions.

For decades, Christmas sales were largely underground, and Christians from the Philippines, Lebanon and other countries celebrated behind closed doors or in expat enclaves. "It was very difficult to find such" Christmas items in the kingdom, said Mary, a Lebanese expat based in Riyadh who preferred to be identified by her first name. "Many of my friends used to buy them from Lebanon or Syria and sneak them into the country," she said.

But in a sign of the changing times, the Riyadh shop manager, Omar, who declined to provide his surname, said his store sold not just Christmas items but also outfits for Halloween - widely seen by arch-conservatives as an American tradition that is a deviation from Islam. Saudi Arabia is the custodian of Makkah and Madinah, Islam's two holiest sites.

The Arab kingdom has long been accused of exporting its ultraconservative Wahhabist Sunni doctrine around the world but has been slowly pushing for inter-religious exchange. It has even hosted officials linked to the Vatican as well as Jewish figures in recent years. Local officials say school textbooks, once well-known for denigrating Jews and other non-Muslims as "swines" and "apes", are undergoing revision as part of Prince Mohammed's campaign to combat extremism in education.

The heir to the Saudi throne has curbed the influence of the once-powerful religious police, as he permits mixed-gender music concerts, cinemas and other entertainment, but temples and churches are still forbidden. Earlier this month, the United States reconfirmed Saudi Arabia's place among a list of countries on a religious freedom blacklist. The countries are accused of engaging in or tolerating "systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom", according to the US State Department.

Last month, Prince Mohammed pledged to strike extremists with an "iron fist", after a bombing against a gathering of Western diplomats at a non-Muslim cemetery in the Red Sea city of Jeddah that was claimed by the Islamic State group. - AFP